Every parent wants their child to “love” them, but what exactly is a child’s love and where does it come from?
If we look at animals and their young, we see “love” in its natural state: adoration and respect in equal measures. A mother dog, for instance, is gentle with her pups in a general sense, but unapologetically tough when their behavior calls for it. She plays gently and protects them for danger, but she does not hesitate to correct them when their behavior gets out of line or crosses hers. Her puppies are not afraid of her, but neither do they think of her a playmate or a “friend.”
Every animal, including the human animal, has an instinctive need for hierarchy and order that must be met for all to seem well with the world. When a mother dog steps confidently onto the high rung of the Power Ladder by setting and enforcing her rules, she becomes her puppies’ Leader, their Boss and their Hero. She is preparing them for the realities of life beyond the den. Because they recognize her more powerful status, the pups are drawn to her strength and follow her around like a tiny fan club. What may look like “love” to the casual observer, might be more accurately described as hero-worship. Even very young animals feel the appeal of a strong leader that they can trust and follow in order to be safe and secure in the big new world around them.
Many parents worry that their child won’t “love” them if they set rules or enforce boundaries, believing that their child’s love depends on their making sure everything is rainbows and lollipops and their shielding them from all the uncomfortable parts of life, including painful results from poor choices. If a mother dog acted in this way, afraid to enforce rules and follow-through with consequence because she feared her puppies would not like her if she did so, she would have neither their adoration nor respect, since neither had been earned through fearless follow-through.
Like puppies, children have the same need for a leader in the hierarchy. They want a Hero in their parent, not a friend or playmate! When a cartoon hero enforces truth and justice, they are elevated in a child’s eyes on a pedestal of adoration and respect. They admire super-heroes that do not shrink from the challenges of leadership and do not avoid making hard decisions. In fact, fearlessly taking on those things is what makes them larger than life, and worthy of being respected and loved. Why do you think Hollywood keeps creating super-heroes for young movie-goers decade after decade, and making a fortune doing so? Kids want heroes!
Be your child’s Hero by being strong, consistent and dependable, setting clear standards of good and acceptable behavior and then enforcing them. Explain the rewards for following your rules as well as the reasonable consequences for breaking them. Celebrate when your rules are followed and give rewards generously. Even more importantly, however, don’t wimp out and be afraid to apply consequences if they’ve been earned. If follow-through and consequence is done with love and logic, your kid won’t hate you (in spite of what they might say in the moment.) Of course, no child enjoys consequences (that’s why it’s a consequence,) but every child feels accomplished and important when they meet a goal, like good behavior. They need a Hero that helps teach them the difference between a good choice and a bad one and the inevitable results of each; a Hero that helps prepare them for life in the real world.
That Hero Pedestal has your name on it! You need only climb up, like the Mama Dog you are.
“Imagine if you succeeded in making the world perfect for your children,
what a shock the rest of life would be for them.“
– Joyce Maynard