I’m sure that is the right answer, but I think there is another gift alongside it. I am convinced it is … acceptance. If a child does not feel accepted by his or her parents, it is almost impossible for them to feel loved by them. One of the greatest things we can do for our children is to send them into adulthood believing that at least their parents accept them for who they are.
I heard recently about one mum who’d had quite an evening with her fifteen-year-old son. “We’d spent the best part of an hour arguing about his outrageous hair and dreadful clothes,” she said. “We simmered in silence for ages, then both collapsed laughing after he yelled, ‘Mum, I just want to be different like everybody else!’” We all crave to be accepted, and somebody has convinced us that what we look like and what we achieve are the things that make us acceptable.
“I accept the way you look”
One of the greatest pressures on children in modern society is the way they look. Children aren’t stupid; they know that ugly girls don’t get on the front covers of teen magazines, or unattractive boys on the inside pages.
From her infancy, your daughter will assess from a million messages – some screamed at her from adverts, some whispered in school playgrounds, and most unsaid – whether or not she is ‘beautiful’. Unless that child is destined to be one of the few who meet the standard, she will have to do battle with the world if she is to hold on to her self-esteem. She ought not to have to do battle in the home.
How do we usually decide whether we are acceptable and have worth? The answer is that we perceive this from outside ourselves – from others – especially from those we love and respect. And what makes life particularly hard for our children is that so often when their self-esteem is at its most vulnerable, their peers are at their most hurtful.
I doubt we’ll ever be able to do much to change the cruelty of the very young, but life should be different around our parents. I am saddened when I hear parents make derogatory comments, even in a humorous vein, about the physical appearance of their children – especially in front of others.
The other day, my wife Dianne complimented a teenager on her new outfit. The girl smiled, but her mother poked a finger at her tummy and said, “It’ll look even better when she does something about that.” Of course a parent will want to help a child who is seriously overweight, or help them deal with a bad attack of acne, but somehow we have to let our children know that we love them anyway. That involves us being manifestly proud of them when they are at their gawkiest, most awkward, and especially if their particular features don’t happen to fit what society at present calls ‘attractive’.
“I accept you irrespective of what you achieve”
The second way that we show our children whether or not they are accepted is by our attitude to their achievements. One of the most testing aspects of parenthood is to balance motivating our children to reach their potential, without instilling in them the belief that our love for them is conditional on how they perform.
Our children should know for a certainty that they are loved anyway.
Most children do need motivating in the area of school work and it’s often difficult to find the right balance. It’s possible to be too easy going and not push a child hard enough, or to push too hard and pressurise them. But above all – in the middle of all the yelling, the blackmail, and the forced study guides for breakfast – our children should know for a certainty that they are loved anyway.
Of course, it’s good to give children opportunities, and activities like piano lessons and football coaching can be wonderful, so long as we don’t make it hard to just have fun. The main aim should be that our children enjoy playing the piano and being on the football field, not that they end up at the Festival Hall or playing at Wembley.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that we don’t try to encourage our children to get better grades, or motivate them to achieve their best. It doesn’t even mean that we don’t hope they will change in some ways, but it does mean that we do not put on them the burden of being someone they cannot be.
We send our children into a world that will continually judge them. They will be forced to ask themselves, “Am I clever/determined/successful/sociable enough?” And, of course, “Am I attractive enough?” Matching up to the demands of others is a wearisome business. But we do our children a wonderful service if we send them into that world with an unshakeable belief that there is at least one person who, irrespective of their grades, weight or athletic genius, loves and accepts them unconditionally. It really is one of the greatest gifts. Most of us, as adults, are still searching for somebody to love us like that.
Tell your child you accept them
Here are just some of the words you can be saying to give your child a sense of value. And remember, your child needs to hear you say these words. They could make such a difference to how they view themselves in their adult years: