Reclaiming our intuition as parents
Why I Needed a Parenting Conference and What I Learned
By Caitlin Welles
I had forgotten how to parent. So I went to a parenting conference at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY to relearn how.
A psychologist by profession, I was troubled by the doubt that had infused my interactions with my kids. While I could guide my clients through emotional turmoil, put me in front of my eight-year-old daughter’s disappointment, and I was at a loss. How do I interact with her in a way that is both loving yet teaches her how to be in the world? That’s my role as a mother, right?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a prominent child psychologist from Vancouver, put my confusion in context. Amidst the rapid societal changes that technology has propelled, we parents have come to adopt “roles” that engender control instead of build relationships, deeply constraining our ability to connect with our children.
We are a people that love independence, but for children to become healthy adults, they need to be able to do togetherness and separateness. In contrast to the prevailing approach that emphasizes letting go of our children, especially during adolescence, a strong, deep attachment to the adults responsible for them is what allows children to truly become themselves. To grow up, children need to learn how to deepen their attachments to the people whom they love and who love them back.
“We were never meant to be parents to children whose hearts we don’t have,” Neufeld said. Our children are naturally dependent on us, but their attachment to us evolves as they mature. Neufeld outlined six stages of attachment: to sense, to relate, to belong, to love, to matter and to be known.
Once I understood the progression of these stages, I could suddenly see so clearly where each of my children are thriving and where they may need some extra intentionality in my interactions with them.
Attachment is a hierarchical relationship between two complementary instincts – to seek and to provide. As parents, we need to fulfill the provide side of this equation and nurture our children’s dependence on us. If a parent doesn’t assume the role of provider, children do – becoming entitled, bossy, controlling, demanding and competitive – rather than maturing into adaptive and socially responsible individuals.
It’s not about having the answer, but being the answer. Dr. Neufeld believes most parents know intuitively to focus on attachment, not separation. He shared an important concept for reclaiming that intuition: “bridge what could divide.” In other words, when there has to be separation, focus on the next connection instead of the separation. This approach is such balm to those of us who are not full-time stay-at-home parents and still want to be the constant answer for what our children truly need.
I recognized that I have been doing things intuitively that create bridges already, like putting a small surprise in my kids’ backpacks every day of kindergarten. When the bus pulled away, they had a way to hold on to me while we were apart. And while it means staying up late sometimes or rushing a bit in the morning, I always draw a picture (usually stick figures as I’m no artist!) on their lunch napkins, illustrating something fun we’ll do together after school or some picture I know they’d like, always signed with hearts and love from mommy.
My daughter recently revealed that she was reluctant to buy school lunch (even on pizza Fridays!), because she would miss out on my special napkins. Now that I understand her response as a way of preserving our attachment, I am so much more willing to keep making those napkin bridges, as long as she needs me to. Just like my dad's “I love you napkins” did for me and my sister, which still mean the world to me.
While it was easy to recognize the attachment needs that get met by our annual camping trip where we read Harry Potter out loud by the fire, or our summer vacation at the beach, I’m especially inspired to re-commit to our daily and weekly rituals around meals, snuggle time, and Billie Holliday music to wake up to along with smoothies.
Another important lesson I learned from Dr. Neufeld was that the provision of attachment must be greater than the pursuit of it. This point hit hard, because my daughter had put up such a protest when I left to attend this conference at Omega. Though we exchanged lots of kisses and hugs, I was focused on having to leave rather than trumping her need for attachment. If I had taken a little extra time to give her more than she had asked for in the farewell, I wouldn’t have had to peel her off of me.
I better understand now that I must always take the lead in preserving our attachment. This means I give to her before she asks, or at least give her more than what she asks for. Only when a child’s attachment needs are fully met can they can rest from the pursuit of attachment and move into a position of agency.
For a child to mature, she needs to be free of the “relentless search for proximity” and attachment. When a child has to work for our love, there is no rest and no growth. If their attachment needs go unmet, they will go somewhere else, usually to their peers or technology, neither of which is in the position to guide our children through growth.
The best part of the conference came when it ended and I reunited with my children. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. They were ecstatic to see me and overflowing with love. I met them with more affection than they were giving, telling them how much I missed them and how thrilled I was to be with them again. I am usually effusive but the difference was that I let myself revel in the beauty of their attachment to me. I felt my responsibility to provide them with all they craved and more without burden or uncertainty and with absolute joy in my heart.
So it was not that I had forgotten how to parent – it was that I had stopped trusting my intuition and my instinct to provide my children with all that I already wanted to give.
Caitlin E. Welles, Psy.D., is a Licensed Psychologist, a mother, and an attendee at Omega Institute's parenting conference, Hold On To Your KIds: Parenting in the 21st Century.