I don’t know about you, but my wife, Jean, and I have days where our parenting doesn’t go very smoothly. Sometimes we’ll look at each other and wonder, “Is there a secret to all of this that we’re missing?”
A conversation I had with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis before she passed away reminds me of a concept that I wouldn’t exactly consider a secret, but it comes about as close as anything: Good parenting is rooted in the heart of God, which is all about connection.
The Lord has promised never to leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Even when God is correcting us, He’s still there. He’s present, sheltering us under His wing, and we can rest knowing that we’re always His.
The need for connection is wired into us from conception. A baby’s heartbeat responds to the rhythm of the mother’s. The baby’s hands and feet move in response to the mother’s voice. In utero, the mother’s hormones wash over the child, creating a deep affinity within the child for the mother before he or she is even born.
That intimate connection continues after the child’s birth as well, and this is where the parent-child connection often gets disrupted. In past generations, mothers held their babies for hours, and the vast majority of children were breastfed. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of physical contact in the first years of a child’s life.
In modern times, kids are often taken to daycare early on in their lives. I don’t mention that to shame mothers who work outside the home, but it is good to be aware that, if daycare is a necessity, it’s helpful to increase the amount of physical contact you give your child with the time you have available for them.
To illustrate the importance of connection, Dr. Purvis offers this insightful observation. Car seats are a wonderful invention that keep children safe. They’re an important safety feature when traveling, but some parents keep their baby in them all the time. Moms and dads carry the car seat into restaurants, church, or their small group and leave the baby in it the entire time.
But God’s design for our children’s development is to be nestled in our arms. A child and mother almost become one entity. If you’re a mother, you know that experience. Your baby settles into you, smells your scent, and knows who you are. These are significant biological mechanisms for the child. In a car seat, the baby isn’t feeling your heartbeat, your warmth, or that deep connection with you.
Dr. Purvis believes these often subtle separations of a child from the nurturing of the mother and father can create similar behavior patterns down the road as those found in children adopted from Russia or other Eastern bloc countries.
Many children from these orphanages receive very little human contact. As a result, they don’t develop the internal messaging that says, “I know I’m safe because if I cry, someone comes to take care of me.” If their needs aren’t met when they cry, as they grow older they’ll learn to believe they don’t have a voice, and they’ll resort to one or more of the five major survival skills – aggression, violence, manipulation, triangulation, and control.
And children will never give up those survival skills unless and until they get their voices back. That can only happen through connection.
How does God connect with us in His “parenting”? Through a balance of structure and nurturing. He disciplines us, but He does it through unconditional love. He says, “I love you no matter what. You are mine. You will always be mine.” What little kid doesn’t need to know that?
What big kid doesn’t need to know that?
Even when our children are at their worst, it’s important for them to know they are precious to us. We’re their coach, not their warden.
When our children rebel or choose inappropriate behavior, they need us to lean in and draw even closer to them, not push them away. God has designed a child’s brain and emotions to be developed to maturity through the intimacy of their connection with their mother and father. If we pull back from them, we’re denying them the very input they need to develop into what we’re asking them to become.
We’re also communicating to our children that the only emotions and behavior we’ll tolerate are happy ones. Somehow many of us have come to believe that God only likes us when we’re happy. He’s okay with everything but sadness and anger.
But Scripture says, “Be angry and don’t sin” (Ephesians 4:260). It doesn’t say don’t be angry. It says, “Don’t grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). It doesn’t say, “Don’t grieve.”
When we take away a child’s voice, and we don’t allow them to tell the truth and have authenticity with themselves, we deny them the ability to have authenticity with God. The “secret” to all of that is connection.
We took a trip to Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth earlier this year to talk with Dr. Purvis. She was the director of the Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development. She devoted the last few decades of her life to developing research-based interventions for at-risk children. She and her colleague Dr. David Cross were awarded the Heroes in Healthcare Award in 2006 by the Dallas Business Journal. Sadly, Dr. Purvis passed away on April 12 after an extended illness.