Children are raw unadulterated love

Giving birth might well be likened to - ahem - "passing" a bowling ball - but, spare a thought for the ball. After spending nine months cocooned in a snug bubble, wanting for nothing, she is suddenly expected to contort herself through a pipeline half her size, a feat which demands her to collapse her skull - at which point she might get wedged - and then she is unceremoniously spat out on to a relatively cold hard surface where she is met with frightening alien beings, bright lights, and a strange oppressive atmosphere. That experience by itself could be the first of many seeds inter-sown in the newborn wheat-field.

What happens next is crucial. The first three months of a newborn's life have been referred to as the fourth trimester. Eye-to-eye, flesh-to-flesh, and a happy home environment is the best way to ease a newborn into this strange new world.

Babies are the epitome love. They are not demanding and selfish. They are simply responding to a sensation in the only way they know how. Are they hungry, cold, tired, soiled, scared? They don't know, they just don't like it. When the parent hits the jackpot, the baby is immediately contented. Rewards all round. They want to give, too. Their love is completely unconditional and unprejudiced. They love their parents. Whatever your hang-ups may be mean nothing to the child. Bald? Weight-conscious? They don't care. They love you just the way you are. Their love is unadulterated. It is the world around them that poisons the well.

To re-write Haim Ginott's illustration: Like wet cement, children are easily impressed. How is it possible to amuse her for hours by hiding a coin in your hand and making it appear to come out from behind her ear, and yet her radar is super-sensitive to picking up the merest flicker in your feelings of disapproval?
Why do you think you can fool your 8 year old? Because he's 8? He smells it on you, it reeks, like sepsis. And yes, it will spread to him eventually.
The Last Psychiatrist - Why Parents Hate Parenting
Children are completely unaffected by skin colour, disability, nudity, or beliefs. They are curious, and we are done for. If they sense the slightest suggestion that we are uncomfortable, it throws up a conflict. They don't see the problem, but they don't want to disappoint the one that means the most to them. So begins the process of adapting, or adopting. The child either adapts his ways to accommodate the parental disapproval by hiding and lying, or he adopts his parent's views and takes on the judgements and prejudices he is presented with.

The love children have is also raw. They need to be treated with tenderness, like something delicate. The Bible reports that on one occasion Jesus felt pity for the crowd "because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." What is interesting is that the word used for "harassed" had the original meaning of being "flayed" or "mangled". This expression has been translated as "skinned and thrown about". At the other extreme, Paul talks about the danger of a person becoming hard-hearted and unfeeling. At Ephesians 4:19 he uses the word "callous". Both of these extremes are unhelpful in our children. Thick-skinned, tough as old boots, is not a compliment, it is a tragedy. Being overly sensitive is also not a benefit. We want children to develop a healthy layer of skin. Not forever grazed and raw, but not insensitive and calloused either.

Children are not beaten into shape. They do not need the edges knocked off them. They respond adversely to threats, labeling and sarcasm. They need to be moulded by gentle hands, guided and nurtured. Some things may need more force than others. They might need to be grabbed back from the edge of the road - they don't need to be screamed at, spanked to teach them a lesson, or be told, "You'll be the death of me!"

The home needs to be a safe haven. A harbour, a shelter from the storm of the world around. They know they can relax because they are not judged. They are understood. Everything is forgiven. You are God - the father in the parable of the prodigal. Yes, parents are God and anything else will involve damage control. Even the adopted will yearn to know who made them. Rejection will have to be addressed and dealt with at some point in the future.

It is sometimes argued that children need to learn to contribute to a household. Children are already contributing to a household just by existing. A baby raises the spirits of a family; children contribute with their unabashed giggling, screams, playfulness, and obliging laughter at your rubbish jokes; their beauty and wide-eyed innocence and willingness to learn is a pleasure. On top of all that, they do want to help around the house. They want to help in the kitchen when we are fraught; they want to use the broom when we are in a rush; they want to help sweep up the glass they broke when we "TOLD THEM not to put it on the edge of the table!" All those small rejections will be reciprocated.

It is not often best to force children into doing something they don't want to do. They will do it naturally because they want to, because they will remember the warm delight of give and take. Children struggle with sharing with siblings because they have already been forced to share you, their parents. The firstborn perceives the introduction of a second child as a rejection of the first.

5 steps to renewal
So what can you do if you are concerned about family life, or think that things are slipping (if not careening) out of control?

1. Stop what you are doing. Whatever you are doing isn't working. Don't be afraid to let things drift for a period while you take stock of what's going on. It is time to re-evaluate.

2. Change yourself. It is not the child who is at fault, it is the parent (or significant adult). You can do very little to change others. You can do everything to change yourself. It might be an opportunity to explain your wish to be different, but that does not necessarily mean a time for apologies. There is no shame in this. Oprah is fond of quoting Maya Angelou, but it's a great quote: "You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better."

It is good to focus on areas that are danger zones. When are the highly volatile areas or periods of time? Mealtimes? Bed-time? Homework? Tidiness? You can ask yourself, "Why are these times frustrating for me? What am I afraid of?" Very often, if you are able to get to the root of the problem, it can offer a great deal of relief.

3. Seek assistance. This doesn't mean "go and get therapy". Plenty of problems can be addressed and solved by you. You just have to be open to change. Don't be afraid to seek advice on matters.

Between Parent and Teenager by Haim Ginott is available online. His basic precepts remain true throughout childhood and on into the teenage years (and beyond).

4. Empathy. Work hard to understand your children. Is she an extravert or an introvert? In order to know, be observant: Does she need lots of friends or is just one or two enough? Does she respond ecstatically to shows of affection, or does she push you away because she doesn't really need it? Does she panic over being unloved, or is she more likely to fall apart at the first sign of chaos/disorder? It is not as simple as asking a child "Why did you do such -and-such?" You have to be discerning and intuitive.

5. Acceptance. There will be weeds among the wheat. It is unavoidable, even with the best of intentions - there are too many variables. It is a fact of life that sooner or later a child will have to take responsibility for his or her own life. Everybody has to experience their own "life review" at some point. Some of the things you have done (or neglected to do) might come back to bite you on the behind, but those times can be celebrated because it means that your child is taking control of their life in the most meaningful way.

Children are raw, unadulterated love. However genetically disposed they are toward a certain condition does not mean that they are fated to live out that pattern. Outside influences can have a monumental effect on the outcome. Nature is so often diagnosed from the end results. Nurture can positively effect that end.