Resolutions in the New Year tend to bring us back to basics. Undoubtedly this is why health is our overwhelming preoccupation as judged by the fact that exercise and diet top most New Year’s resolution lists. Upon reflection, health clearly becomes the ultimate priority, as we need our health to prolong our time and preserve our ability to make use of it.
Is there a parallel priority in parenting, something equally basic and like health, in need of renewed resolve? I believe so. Most simply put, it would be to convey to our children the invitation to exist in our presence. It is hard to imagine anything more important, and at the same time, more difficult to remember in the day-to-day busyness that is parenting. I am convinced, after a life-time of putting the pieces together as a developmental scientist, after 40 years of practicing as a clinical psychologist, after 170 cumulative years of parenting and grandparenting, that this simple invitation contains the essence of what is required for healthy development to unfold.
It is in this invitation to exist in our presence that our children’s preeminent need for contact and closeness is met. When a child can trust in this invitation, there is a deep sense of belonging, of significance, of mattering, of being loved. When a child can rest in this invitation, there is no need to seek satisfaction elsewhere. When the invitation is experienced as constant and unconditional, then and only then, can the long process of becoming fully human unfold. Only when the attachment needs are truly met are children spontaneously moved to become independent, curious, resilient, considerate, and well-tempered.
Though the invitation is profoundly simple, is not always easy. To truly invite a child to exist in our presence is to make room for all that comes with the child – their immaturities, their meanings, their inconsistencies, their feelings, their problem behaviour. If the invitation is withdrawn when we are upset or disapproving, then pursuing and preserving the invitation – from others if not from us – becomes their life task.
It is not enough to have an invitation to give. It must be convincingly conveyed. There is no more important belief for a child to have than to assume the invitation to exist in his parent’s presence. We must give them something to believe in.
It is not enough to give the invitation only when one feels like it. Feelings come and go; the invitation must stand if it is to be counted on. Becoming the parent a child needs is to take on the challenge of conveying that invitation when least feeling like it.
In a nutshell, conveying the invitation to exist in our presence is the challenge of parenting cut to the quick. This invitation becomes the garden in which children can truly grow up to become all they were meant to be.
We would do well then, as we start a New Year, to remind ourselves of this basic priority and to renew our resolve to live it out.