Harry Harlow’s mid–twentieth century crusade was to persuade his fellow psychologists that love was a legitimate emotion, that it mattered, that it shaped human development.
He was involved with a study with baby monkeys, one that looked at mother rejection. What the researchers saw was a sudden flowering of rather desperate outreach —the babies put everything into making those mothers love them. They cooed and cuddled, stroked and called. It wasn’t just that they wanted to fix that first fundamental relationship, they had to fix it before they could move on.
“You’re describing my patients,” a nurse who worked with adult
survivors of parental abuse told me. They were 30, 40, 50 years old,
and they were still trapped in that childhood quest of trying to make their parents love them.
How do you raise independent, self-sufficient children? How do you help your children grow up into becoming strong, capable, successful adults who can take care of themselves?
Should you love, empathize with, and emotionally support your children?
Should you be more cold, distant, and hands-off?
What is the morality, or perhaps the moral danger, of giving to your children versus not giving to them, helping versus not helping?
What is giving too much? What is helping too little?
Should you criticize or compliment? Help or force to do?
Both? Neither? How much of each?
We live in a culture that seems to scorn basic needs for intimacy, closeness, and especially dependency, while exalting independence. We tend to accept this as truth – to our detriment.
People are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward.
Where do parental love and support cross the line into making children dependent and weak?
First, let’s consider the concept of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is apprehended as the ability to be alone, to be independent, to be self-caring. It is seen as good. But despite the high level of insistence on self-sufficiency in our culture, we all depend upon one another. No one really exists alone. In fact, we all do better when we depend upon each other than when we try to survive without each other.
Self-sufficiency can be a philosophy; a determination to seek out isolation or aloneness to allow reflection. It can be helpful to get away from the rat race for a while, to appreciate nature or to contemplate one’s place in the universe. But aloneness works best as a break from everyday life in order to recharge. It is not fulfilling as a permanent way of life.
Scientifically, human beings are social beings. But hanging out together is more than just fun or convenient for day-to-day living. Attachment and dependence are necessary for our very survival.
We are not merely happier, we are more successful when we live together, share with each other, and support each other than when we live alone and try to do everything ourselves.
Virtually all children, even abused children, love their parents.
It’s built into the nature of being a child. They may be hurt, disappointed, caught in destructive 'modes of being' that ward off any possibility of getting the love they yearn for. But to be attached, even anxiously attached, is to be in love.
Each year the love may become a little more difficult to access; each year the child may disavow his wish for connection more firmly; he may even swear off his parents and deny that he has any love for them at all. Children are born loving and needing the love of their parents. This inborn love and need of love never diminishes; it is a part of human nature.
There is nothing parents can do for their children that will make their children more dependent and needy than withholding love from them, neglecting their needs, or refusing to support them.
That doesn’t mean that you let them grow up unloving, bad-mannered, selfish, or disrespectful of others; teach them what loving, good mannered, respectful, and kind behaviors are by modeling them yourself – especially with your own children.
It doesn’t mean that you give your children everything that they want, even things that are bad for them or that you can’t afford; children feel loved, and learn trust, when you prevent harm from coming to them, and respect you when you prevent harm from coming to yourself.
It doesn’t mean that you hover over your child, doing their homework for them when they’re children so that they get good grades at school, or calling their bosses at work after they’re grown to make sure that they’re being treated right.
That is not love, that is neglect. It is disrespectful to your child as an individual for you try to live their life for them. Conflating your child’s life with your own (or with your own need for love, success, or approval from others) is not love, it is fear. It is neglect.
It is obviously not-love to criticize and control your children, to abuse them emotionally, verbally, or physically, or to reject them.
What is less obviously not-love is to smother them to the point where they can’t grow, or to withhold your love, attention, and support from them out of fear.
Early emotional loss is the universal template for all addictions.
All addictions are about self-soothing. And when do children need to sooth themselves? When they are not being soothed. Without love we wither and die.
What makes children fail in life is coldness and neglect from their parents. Not love. Not giving. Not helping. Children require love and support from their parents in order to survive and to grow into capable adults. Love and support prepare children to face the world on their own.
Parents who withhold love and support from their children will make their children try ever harder to get it.
When parents are too frightened, distracted, or misinformed to love their children naturally, attempts by children to provoke parental love will be expressed through more reaching out – and if that doesn’t work, eventually through what are sometimes misnamed “oppositional behaviors”, or even fake psychiatric diagnoses such as “refusal syndrome” – crying, tantrums, bad moods, sullenness, withdrawal, running away, or even, eventually, rejection of their
None of these behaviors are being “bad.” Children are not “born bad.” Never, ever assume that children behave “badly” out of bad intentions. When children behave badly, it is because they have been treated with not-love. Gently and compassionately try to find out what’s wrong – you may be surprised at what is really going on.
Always assume this truth: what is not love is fear. Root out the fear and pain beneath your child’s “bad” behavior, and you may see it as not really bad, but the result of an affective state that can be corrected through your love, understanding, support, and often, help or assistance. Seek help from a professional if you need to.
Children are rarely born psychiatric patients. Psychiatric patients are made that way by their experiences, mostly, with their parents, and later, with the world.
If that seems like putting too much responsibility, “unfairly”, on the
parent, it isn’t. Parents are far more responsible for shaping their children’s reactions to the world than is generally recognized or accepted. It is a scientific fact. Many parents reject this and turn to those who would reassure them that children are born bad, or born mentally ill (and therefore need drugs that suppress behaviors that are perfectly normal), because it relieves them of responsibility, of discomfort over a fact. But nothing changes the fact.
Badness, acting out, and negativity all are calls for love, for understanding of the child’s feelings and needs. All children are born needing love, acceptance, and support by their parents. When parents don’t supply their children’s needs, their children suffer, and acting out is a sign of that suffering. Nothing more, nothing less.
Adults, with power, can ask for what they want or need. Children don’t have that power except in the form of crying and fussing, pre-verbally, and by reaching out for it, in any way they can verbally and physically, when they are older.
If children’s feelings and needs are denied or denigrated, if their power is continually taken away from them, if they are punished or ignored when they try to express themselves, children may become permanently insecure and needy.
Children who only sometimes, seldom, or never receive love and acceptance, support and protection, attention and encouragement from their parents will be traumatized – and therefore insecure and needy – forever.
The more children experience affection… the more curious they become about the world. Love makes people smarter.
Children need love and acceptance, support and protection, attention and encouragement from parents in order to grow up strong, confident, and able to thrive in the world.
These are such basic needs that nothing ever really heals a lack. They are so integral that when withheld, or the opposite is given, children sometimes give up and decide that they must detach from, avoid, or as adults, become estranged from their parents in order to heal and to try to live happy lives, anyway.
That’s not the child’s selfishness or dysfunction on display – it’s a
natural, normal response to life and living problems for the child that the parents caused.
Belief in self-reliance is very closely linked with a low degree of
comfort with intimacy and closeness. The problem with self-reliance is the “self” part. It forces you to ignore the needs of the person you love and concentrate only on your own needs.
It prevents you (and the person you love) from the feeling of joy of feeling a part of something bigger than yourself. Does love shown, strong protection offered, defense against the world promised, tenderness and caring demonstrated toward children of any age disable them? In other words, does parental love, acceptance, and encouragement turn children into dependent wimps?
The answer is no. Love does not make people weak or dependent. Love makes people strong, confident, and capable.
I like how Deepak Chopra approaches parenting. He promised to his children unending love and support for as long as he lived, forever, no matter what happened to them. And then he gave it to them. His children grew up with everything that they needed, emotionally and physically, to create their own happy, successful, independent lives, and they did.
How do you make your children self-sufficient and independent, in the sense of becoming capable adults? The answer is that you love them with all your heart, allow them the freedom to grow, and help them whenever you can. Love is more than the glue that keeps people together. People are more successful when they have other people to love and to be loved by.
The more love, acceptance, encouragement, and support you give to your children throughout their lives, from babyhood to adulthood, the stronger, happier, and more successful they will be as children – and as adults.
Whether you were or were not raised with love, acceptance, encouragement and support, seeking help from a professional may be helpful and necessary in raising your children. If and when needed, seeking help is not a sign of weakness but of strength.
Resource: Journal of Child Psychology