We have just recently moved in to a rental property that is… less than ideal. After piling all the trash left at the property by the previous tenant out on the curb for council clean up one evening, I was walking arm in arm up the driveway with my 17 yo daughter.
Me: “Thanks for helping.”
Bek: “I love you too.”
That right there is everything I could have hoped for as a parent. No matter what I say, my daughter hears ‘I love you’.
Their whole lives, the last thing my children have heard before they leave the house is “I love you”, even if we have just had a disagreement or I am feeling less than loving towards some of their behaviours. “I love you” will always be the last thing they hear when they leave our home. It may be “I really want to choke you Homer Simpson style for your stupidity right now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you beyond compare.” Or “we’ll talk about it when you get home tonight and you’ve removed your head from your arse. Just know I love you no matter how special your behaviour is.” But it is still “I love you”.
When I say love your children in a manner they can’t help but love you back, I don’t mean give them everything they want and never impose any rules on them. What you get in return for that is not love and it is certainly not respect. We are there to be their parents, not their enabling best friends. I am mother. Mentor. Enforcer of Rules. Shepherd through life. Often begrudging, but generally chatty Taxi Driver. Chores and Homework Badger. Our friendship, though it exists, exists with strings attached. With caveats and boundaries. I am first and foremost their mother. We will but heads on the odd occasion that they are being buttheads.
Now I know that my style of parenting isn’t for everyone, we are quite sweary and NSFW behind closed doors. That is why I encourage you to use whatever it is about the amazing human being you are, the thing that makes you lovable and unique, in order to love your children so much they can’t help but love you back. If like me, you love building box forts in the lounge room and creating indoor beach barbeques, engage with them using quirky part of your personality that meshes with yours. If you are crafty, show you love by creating things you know they’ll adore. If you are sporty, make chores fun by turning them into games and competitions. If they enjoy both fishing and animated films, exclaim “I don’t understand fishing metaphors” before collapsing to the ground if you get lost when they start talking about inline spinners and jerkbait.
Parenting is difficult and tiring. But it also the most wonderfully joyous thing to be a part of. For me, my children can’t help but love me back because my love shines through in all the nonsense I bring to their lives. And in the fact that within the circus we call home I put in the effort to set consistent rules and boundaries. All the fun, laughter, and inappropriate joking is underscored by boundaries and discipline.
I was at the store on the weekend and a tired looking mother was on the travelator with her twin boys. One was running up the down travelator and the other was walking calmly in front of her towards me. I smiled knowingly at her and we in that moment of understanding we bonded as parents. She was clearly overwrought, the shopping centre was near on empty and there was no one else on the travelator but us so it was no big deal that the boys were not standing perfectly by her side. They were quiet, happy and quite well behaved for 6 ish years old to my eye. “It gets easier as they get older and less active” I encouraged her.
“Yeah but I’ve still got to go through that horrible stage that comes after this.” I always find it interesting that parents just assume their children will be difficult, as if they don’t have any control over it.
“My boy is 22 and he didn’t have a difficult stage after he stopped running everywhere and breaking bones” I responded. Her response floored me. I wish it was the first time I had heard words to this effect, but sadly it isn’t.
“My daughter is thirteen and she’s a bitch.”
If I thought my mother had that opinion of me, I probably would be too. In fact, thirteen year old me would go out of her way to prove she was a bitch. That’s what thirteen year olds do. If children don’t have someone believing in the person they can be, why would they try to be anyone different?
Loving our children in a way that they can’t help but love us back is about modelling the behaviours we want to see in them, engaging with them in a manner that they connect with and taking the time to experience the world from their own frame of reference. If we treat our children like a hindrance or a difficulty then that is what they will think we believe of them. There is no connection in that, it communicates disappointment in who they are and the gap between what we want them to be and who they actually are. There is a vast difference between hearing “Will you just shut up and stay still for a change?” or “Why can’t you just behave like your brother/friend/anyone other than them” than hearing “Sweetheart, you know how sometimes you get tired and grumpy and I look after you? I’m feeling that right now, can we just take some time out for me to rest so I can be my fun self again soon?” They all ask for peace and quiet, but the last one creates a shared experience and helps our children understand and connect with us and how we are feeling.
How we deal with those moments when we butt heads with our children is every bit as important as all the moments in between when they are actually nice to be around. In fact, they speak volumes to our children about our role in their lives and how we view them as people.
One of the reasons my children can’t help but love me back is because they see the love in everything I do. Even when I have to discipline them. Rarely are there raised voices and harsh words in our house, no matter how spectacularly stupid or hurtful the behaviour by the adorable little miscreant has been. I always speak honestly and openly with them about where I am coming from when I do have to play the Parent Card and squash their fun or any misbehaviours.
After all the hurt feelings and teenage anger has died down to a simmer, I approach my child and explain to them why I did what I did. I assure them that I understand that they are hurt and angry and I would have felt the same at their age. But I’ve lived a life and I can see the pitfalls of their decisions even if they can’t. I remind them that I am their mother and my job is to get them through to adulthood safe, well rounded and happy. In that order. Happy sometimes has to take a back seat when the other two goals are jeopardised. I make sure they understand that loving them is much bigger than just making them happy in that moment. I love them so much I will be the one to put my foot down so they can go on to have rich and happy lives as adults, regardless of how unhappy it makes the both of us at the time.
Speaking to my 16 year old about parenting styles and how we show love to each other, including my setting of rules and boundaries, she said “I was an asshole for a bit but you refused to take any of my crap and I pulled my head in pretty quickly.” While we as parents are not wholly in control of our children’s actions and attitudes, we play a large part in them as they grow up.
After thinking about writing this post I presented all of my children a seemingly simple question. I asked “This is not a self serving question for gratification; it’s a genuine question for a post I’m writing. Why do you love me?”
My 17 year old daughter gave me the most insightful answer which, thankfully, confirmed what I had suspected. She said she loved me because I was funny, kind, silly and thoughtful. All good answers and, if I’m honest, did give me the gratification as a parent that I was not intentionally seeking. It is easy to see why someone would respond well to kindness and thoughtfulness, but I wanted to know why my personal characteristics of funny and silly were reasons to love me as a parent. To her, those qualities are a reflection of her and she likes that we connect that way. She responds well to being parented in a style that meshes with her own personality.
All my children have their own wonderful, unique personalities and are experiencing life differently to myself and each other. To have the kind of relationship where they can’t help but love me back I take the time to see life through their eyes, listen to everything they have to say to me even if I. Really. Don’t. Care. About. Pokemon Go. And I recognise that the little things aren’t worth saying no to if they don’t take too much time out of my day or cause inconvenience. Is it a pain in the butt to detour past the gym to go past three pokemon stops? Yes. Does it take more than two minutes? No. I have two minutes to give to my children to make them feel that I care about helping them with the things that interest them. Did I just clean the lounge room? Yes. Is it a pain in the butt to step over lego or a stuffed toy tea party? Yes. Does it actually hurt me in any way for the lounge to be messed up again for a few hours? No. Off you go, have fun, clean up after yourselves. If you don’t, the next time you ask to mess the house up will be a learning experience you won’t enjoy.
I show my children that I not only love them but like them. I seek out ways for us to spend time together doing things that we both enjoy. I have created a comfortable space that they can ask anything they like (seriously, once my child came out with ‘I heard something at school I don’t know. What’s a rim job?’), and they know they can call for help if they have made a mistake and they won’t be instantly met with attitude. They know there will be consequences, but they also know they will be met with love and support before the consequences come after they are out of danger and distress. The punishment always fits the crime, if I think I am going to overreact I tell them I love them but will talk to them when I have had a moment to collect myself because I’m too angry to make good decisions. I am consistent. In short, I treat them like individual, thinking, feeling people, not possessions for me to own or control.
Parenting Tools – TL;DR
There is no magic formula for parenting. But I can tell you that your children can’t help but love you back when your chief parenting tool is love. Love and patience. Patience and love. Your two main parenting tools are love and patience and respect. Your three main parenting tools are love, respect, patience and honesty. Your four…no amongst your parenting tools are such elements as love… no wait, I’ll start this again.
Amongst your parenting tools are such diverse elements as love, patience, respect, honesty, fairness, boundaries, consistency and a genuine desire to connect with your children and understand where they are coming from.
Throw in a liberal handful of your own personality and they will never realise they are in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition. Or a Monty Python Sketch.