Depending on your schedule and your needs, you may prefer to read the 4 sections below at different times rather than in a single sitting.
As you begin reading, bring to mind the feeling of being loved and of loving. Sense how embracing, empowering, reassuring and affirming it is. Try to keep this awareness as you read through the ideas in this first guiding principle, which centers on love.
Offering love isn’t usually a challenge for parents. If anything, parents are sometimes astonished by how enormous their love for their child is. While there are countless challenges and issues that come with the day-to-day reality of parenting, underlying these is clearly a very powerful love. You sense its power the instant you realize your toddler has disappeared in a store or your teenager takes a first solo drive with a new license; when your kindergarten child bursts with pride at making a first ever goal on a soccer field or your tween has the courage to stick up for a classmate being teased on the playground. The love is huge. Yet it is also surprisingly easy to only half notice your child needing your attention in the midst of your countless daily tasks. Similarly, while it is easy to feel and express love when your child has excelled at something, filling you with a sense of happiness, you may feel your affection lessen when your child disappoints you. This first guiding principle draws your attention to the qualities of love at its finest and suggests that you consciously offer simple accepting loving awareness to your child when you can. It also asks that you give that same kind of love to yourself.
“Our capacity to love is awakened in us through having received love from others.”
~ James Baraz ~
- What is genuine love?
Love is a feeling of course. When we look into the eyes of someone who is lovingly present for us, demanding nothing of us but offering a flow of unreserved fondness, we see ourselves reflected back at our finest. In those moments we begin to appreciate all that we are. We may feel confident or have a sense of the many things that are possible for us. We feel secure, connected and cared for. We feel good about ourselves, our self esteem rises, we feel energized. That is the feeling of receiving genuine love. Offering this kind of love comes from a great fullness of being. When you are fully present for someone, or some thing, you are filled with appreciation. You may have felt this fullness gazing at the miracle of your sleeping child, sensing the tenderness of your partner or being awed by the sheer magnificence of a sunset. This is the feeling of fullness that comes with genuine love and that radiates out from us when we offer such love.
Genuine love has some important features. Perhaps most important, it is unconditional. We say that a lot, but we don’t often pause to consider what that really means. It means the love is unencumbered. There are no conditions, no prerequisites for giving this kind of love. It isn’t just given when certain requirements or standards are met. It is offered to a person just as she or he is. This kind of love, love without conditions, doesn’t ask for someone to be different from what he or she is, because it sees and treasures the wonderful things that are already present. One of the key insights that motivates “Parenting With Wisdom” is that children and adults are fundamentally the same, and one of the most important things we share is that each of us wants to be seen and appreciated for who we are. Each person has a unique reservoir of positive qualities and skills and each one of us thrives and feels happy when these are recognized and valued. Genuine love offers this appreciation. A loving relationship isn’t a fearful or judging one that points out shortcomings or that can be withdrawn or denied or diminished based on merit. In fact, it isn’t possible to really love when negative thoughts are present. Harsh thoughts of judgment, dissatisfaction, disappointment or anger contract the heart. Kind accepting thoughts expand the heart.
You can demonstrate this expansion and contraction for yourself physically. Try sitting comfortably with a gently straight back, with your chest open and your body tall. Inhale deeply a few times and let your mind settle on someone you love. Think of some of the things you like most about that person. Linger with these thoughts a little while. Take them in.
After a few moments, think of something that you don’t like or that irritates you about that person and stay with those feelings for a little while. Do you feel your breath become shallower? Your body fold inward? What other sensation change? Are you more contracted?
Before you end this experiment, return to the positive thoughts and rest in them again, feeling yourself open and relax into the more loving feelings.
At its finest, love involves a great fullness that comes from attention and appreciation flowing from an open heart. It comes when we are fully present, fully aware, truly tuned in or connected. And it comes when we feel at peace. Even if this kind of full loving awareness for someone is felt for just a few moments a day, it is profound and enduring. This is the love that nurtures your child deeply and securely, creating a lifelong embrace. It lets your child know that he or she is loveable and initiates an inner sense of worthiness that will incline your child toward happiness throughout life. The kind of love we receive as children is the foundation for how we feel about ourselves.
Eminent Buddhist teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield (2012, pp. 43-44) describes how stunned the Dalai Lama was when he attended a meeting of western psychologists and found a lot of discussion about self-dissatisfaction and unworthiness. He went around asking the participants if they sometimes felt unworthy or felt self hatred and was amazed that each one said they did. He was also very surprised that everyone talked about difficulties with their parents rather than expressing fondness for them. This revelation troubled the Dalai Lama. As Kornfield says, when children are valued and loved by their parents and their culture, they grow up securely with a good sense of self and they feel connected in healthy ways to others, something that benefits both the child and society as a whole. What the Dalai Lama noticed is the impact of our culture, which too often teaches us to be self critical, to see errors and shortcomings without appreciating the many wonderful things that are present in us. Somehow, many of us have come to notice what is wrong inside rather than what is right.
- Offering genuine love
What does this mean in practical terms? It’s actually rather simple. This Guiding Principle suggests that you open to your loving instincts and respond when you sense that your child, or you yourself, needs attention. It asks you to pause your preoccupation with rushing to complete tasks a few times during the day. Instead, sometimes when your child asks for your attention or simply walks into your vicinity, stop what you are doing for a short time and fully attend to him or her. You can’t always do this, but you can do it some time every day. If your child is small, stoop down to his level. If your child is older, turn and face her fully, or sit next to her or across from her. Look into your child’s face and open your eyes, your ears and your heart to take in what he is saying or needing or wants to show you. And for a short while, perhaps just a couple of minutes, be fully absorbed with your child. Savor the feelings you have. In doing this simple act of paying full loving attention, you beam affection to your child and let him know that he is wonderful and appreciated. As you open to this flow of affection, you’ll find love filling you as well. Offering a few minutes of this kind of genuine love is a pause that nurtures both parent and child.
Curiously, it will also give you a lot more time to do other things. When children are ignored or get only fragments of their parent’s attention they feel empty and will react in countless ways to get more. They become fussy, pick fights with a sibling, ‘bother’ parents endlessly or will settle on some other irritating way to let out their frustration. When children feel the affirmation of loving attention they feel dissatisfied much less often and move through their days feeling more peaceful and cooperative.
Offering a steady flow of genuine love is a wonderful ideal. But of course a normal human can’t offer this kind of love all the time. We can though became consciously aware of those we love at various points throughout the day, or even just once a day, briefly dropping other thoughts or worries from our mind, and warmly attending to our child, or someone we love. Offering this kind of loving awareness, without any conditions or judgments, without other preoccupations intruding, is offering genuine love. It is really noticing your child, really engaging, and delighting in who she or he is. It is pure unencumbered love, here for both you and your child to enjoy and nourishing you both in many ways. You will probably find that if you make the choice to do this once or twice a day, it will become a habit, a good habit, and it is likely to expand, happening more and more often.
- Try not to let your ego get in your child’s way
Another important feature of genuine love is that it is ego-free. This means loving and valuing your child for himself and recognizing that your own personal goals and aspirations belong to you, not to him.
Parents are filled with joy and pride about their child. How could it be otherwise? It stems from and enhances the sense of attachment that enables us to be caring parents. We like to share pictures and tell stories or post them on our favorite social media site. We delight in all kinds of things our child does. It doesn’t matter that every baby has a first smile or first step, that every toddler rolls a ball, that every school child reads a book for the first time or scores a goal or plays a scale . . . . It is magical when it is our own child who does these things. This is the stuff of that amazing bond, the sometimes extraordinary glee of sharing in our own child’s development. When a child shows particular skill at something, the sense of joy or pride gets even greater. The challenge is to enjoy and to support without pushing or taking over and to be aware of which interests belong to your child and which are yours.
Distinguishing between what is you and what is your child means recognizing which ideas about achievements, goals, awards, accomplishments or interests are yours and getting them out of your child’s way. This means noticing what your child is drawn to, what activities fill him with happiness and engage him. It also means truly seeing the gifts your child has and being pleased, rather than wishing your child had different gifts or interests or trying to get your child to be good at things you want her to be good at. As a parent you can support your child’s development, and provide opportunities for her to discover and practice skills. You can also help your child gain the courage to keep trying and the self-discipline needed to achieve various goals, but the goals and interests need to come from your child.
An important thing to guard against, is imagining that your child will fulfill your personal dreams or aspirations, for he must find and fill his own. Your self value and self esteem can only come from within you. Your child’s sense of self esteem and self value can only evolve if she is seen and respected for herself. This is what offering genuine love that is ego free asks of you. To respect the boundaries between you and your child and to enjoy and nurture the gifts you each have. If you place your personal hopes and aspirations on your child’s path, he will trip.
“If your own ego is in your child’s way, your child will trip over it.”
~ Anne Dunlea ~
.While you should stay off your child’s path, you deserve to take care of your own path. The idea is to keep parent and child separate. Each is important and each is endowed with possibilities, skills and talents that deserve to be explored, nurtured and given space to grow. You are further along your path than your child is on his, but both paths are important. Which brings us back to another important part of this guiding principle: remember that you too are worthy of love.
- Offer this genuine love to yourself
Rather remarkably, the flow of feelings that are offered with genuine love enrich the giver as well as the receiver. An astonishing thing about love and other warm feelings is that the more we expand to give them, the more we are filled with them ourselves. It is a curious paradox: the more love we give away the more love we have. It is in this way that genuine love grows.
While most parents feel a deep love for their child, it seems harder for parents, indeed for most people, to love themselves; to realize that they too deserve their own tender respectful love. Yet this small insight, the awareness that you are loveable, is important to parenting with wisdom. Respecting and loving yourself allows you to embrace life and to open more fully to loving and enjoying your children and your role as a parent. The power of this is immense. Just as on an airplane we are advised to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others, we need to have love flowing into us before we can offer it to others.
Perhaps the idea of self love sounds shocking or selfish. Many people have convinced themselves they are unworthy. They focus on imperfections and mistakes, send endless messages to themselves that they have goofed up again, and are forever trying to be better. We may relish or even cling to the love our partner or someone else gives us, but we rarely see ourselves as worthy of our own love. Stop and think about this for a moment. Would you like your child to grow up with these feelings? Would you like your child to feel unworthy of love? Wouldn’t you prefer your child to know and embrace his gifts, to feel happy about himself and to extend that healthy whole love to others? You are no different. Self love doesn’t mean arrogance or self-centeredness or any other such negative quality. It is a gentle reflection of self-respect, an awareness of the astounding fact that you are here and alive and have many things to offer and experience in life.
Young children seem to naturally love themselves. They are enchanted by their accomplishments. They are entranced by the images of themselves they see in photos, videos or in the mirror. They seem to delight in who and what they are. These kinds of feelings are beautiful, healthy and wholesome. They seem innocent and honest, a part of being happy and enjoying life. Yet this natural inborn self delight seems to diminish over time. How does that happen? Parents and teachers spend a lot of time encouraging children to think of others and to care for others. We rarely remember to tell children to love and nurture themselves. This omission, combined with all the messages to love others, usually leads people to forget that they are also fun and loveable. Loving and enjoying oneself nurtures happiness and this in turn gives us an ever greater capacity for loving things outside ourselves: other people, nature, music, pets and so on. Think for a moment about your own experiences. When you feel good about yourself, when you are happy, don’t you feel more open and loving to the world around you? When you are “in love” you adore someone special and you also like yourself and see the good in others.
We cannot genuinely love another unless we first love ourselves. The reason for this is that unloving feelings contract us. A lack of love simply means there is not love to give. It means that the love we can offer contains doubts. It also means that we are living our own lives in a diminished way: less joyful, less trusting, less confident, less in touch with all the positive thoughts we can have. You deserve much more than this. When we don’t love ourselves, we present ourselves to our child as unworthy. We are transmitting a subliminal message that we are not good enough, not deserving of respect or of genuine love.
Most people in our culture are familiar with the teaching from Jesus, “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31). This sense of love and connection is described in all of the major religions of the world. A very similar statement appears in the Tao Te Ching: “Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things” (Tao Te Ching, #13, final line). Did you notice there is a crucial implication in these statements? One must love oneself in order to love one’s neighbor or to lovingly care for things. Loving oneself is a prerequisite for being able to offer love to others. In the west, centuries of tradition have focused on the importance of loving our neighbor, while the challenge is to love oneself! It is unfortunate we don’t spend more time addressing that part of the advice. Instead, too often we have an uncomfortable sense that loving oneself is somehow immodest, inappropriate or implies that we are filled with a sense of self-importance. Or that we are undeserving
If you love yourself, you are doing many incredibly important and powerful things. You are caring for yourself, you are sending a message to your child that you are worthy of love, you are showing your child that she too is worthy of self love, you are filling yourself with love that can flow into you and to all those around you, and you are demonstrating how to love. The ability to offer genuine love relies in part on the ability to love oneself.
- How can you love yourself?
You may open easily to this; you may not. Self love involves tapping into an inner feeling of loving peace or gratefulness that is there, but is not always readily accessible.
Loving yourself involves enjoying and accepting who you are. Some parents may be playful and exuberant, relishing their skills and interests, and letting these feelings flow over them. Having fun. Other parents may sip a cup of tea and reflect on the pleasure of “being” or may take a walk, without earplugs, and feel the sheer joy of being alive and here. In its fullest form though, self love often involves a centering or a contemplative practice that stills us and draws our awareness. For many people, self love also involves facing and releasing insecurities or doubts and perhaps healing old wounds. You can learn to appreciate and nurture yourself in various ways. It’s best to find a way that resonates well with you, which, if you think about it, is a nice first step in honoring and liking who you are. You may enjoy journaling and taking an inventory of the many gifts you have and perhaps the challenges you have faced and grown from. You might practice mindfulness, meditation or yoga; you might take a course on cultivating happiness, self-love or gratefulness either on-line, in-person or through a book. You may want to explore the section on Meditation and Practices in this site. If you feel trapped by past hurts, a therapist, trained mentor or similar counselor can help. The key for everyone of us, is to look inside at all the wonderful things that are there and enjoy them.
One more thought: when we become parents, we are also still a child. This is true in many respects, since we grow along with our children, hoping to be a step ahead of them and scurrying when we are not. In another sense we contain within ourselves our own child self, our inner child, as it is sometimes called. Often in pop psychology and some self-help genres, the inner child is seen as little, helpless, dependent and needing to build trust in our “big self” to take care of it. Another side to this is that our “inner child” still holds the delight and enthusiasm of early childhood. The little inner child is a storehouse of ways to playfully enjoy who we are. Being grown up gives us maturity and responsibility, but it needn’t obliterate the child inside. One of the wisest things we can do as a parent is to treat our whole self with kindhearted openness and awareness. When we judge ourselves harshly, ignore our gifts or deny ourselves time and space to be, we squelch who we are. We diminish ourselves and contract, moving away from happiness and the full experience of life. Instead, we should extend to ourselves the same loving kindness we wish to extend to our child. In doing so, we nurture not only ourselves and our inner child, but also our children and our family.
The main idea
Genuine love is an openness to all that someone is. It delights in the good and accepts entirety. It is offered without conditions, that is, it isn’t withdrawn when we experience some kind of displeasure. It doesn’t demand change. It is offered to someone we love without our own ego getting in the way.
Daily life is filled with the pull of work or professional commitments and a seemingly endless round of mundane tasks: paying bills, errands, cleaning, driving carpools, waiting for a half-hour lesson to finish, dealing with a homework meltdown all while juggling emails, deadlines and meetings. Becoming attentive to the bigger picture, being lovingly aware of your child and yourself, brings a sense of peace and fullness. When that feeling enters your consciousness, take it in fully and relish it. Perhaps remember that you are doing all those things because you love your child. Perhaps remember which things in life are really important and worth savoring.
Receiving genuine love that is truly without conditions creates a sense of self worthiness that endures throughout life. Keep in mind also that love involves both giving and receiving. I hope you will be open to taking in love as well as giving out love, whether it comes from your child, your partner, the wider world, or the love within you expanding to fill you as well as others.
Kornfield, Jack (2012). Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening right where you are. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN: 978-1-61180-050-0
Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane (1972). LaoTsu Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN: 0-394-71833-X