While being too soft, as in permissive with your children, is a bad thing, there is another kind of softness children require and thrive on, and that is affection. You don’t have to be continually hugging and kissing them, though kisses and hugs are important; everyone needs touch in order to thrive. Babies need it to survive. Failure to Thrive Syndrome is from an absence of touch and attention. Infants have died from it. But another important kind of affection is the reflection children see of themselves in your eyes.
Eyes are great communicators. They are how we know and are known. Amazing how important connection is. Eyes are our first connection along with smell and sound. Even before our brains recognize Mommy and Daddy, are senses do. We come out of a normal birth revved up with hormones for bonding. Isn’t that just the coolest thing! We are made for connection. Programmed for love relationships.
A poignant illustration of this came to me through a graduate teacher. We became friends and stayed in touch until she died. One day we were on the phone and she asked me what I thought about a girl she had met. Her mother was blind, and this poor girl had no sense of self–she hadn’t gotten the reflection of herself in her mother’s eyes. (I don’t know where her dad was.) How sad. She had a mother who loved her and cared for her. But she couldn’t see that she was loved, couldn’t get a sense of who she was from looking into her mother’s eyes–through no fault of her mother.
Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The eyes are the windows of the soul.” Maybe he wasn’t the first to say it, but he brings to mind lovers gazing into each other’s eyes. Eyes are important for children too. I have worked with clients whose mother’s were Narcissistic Personality Disorders, and they also struggle to find a sense of self. I’ve also seen it come from a narcissistic father or an alcoholic father, and a mother who is so preoccupied with him, that it makes her emotionally unavailable. Her children struggle with identity. Both boys and girls are affected, but a girl is even more so because women are more relationship-oriented than men.
Children need relationships to grow up healthy, and relationships built on love and trust, affection and boundaries are the best. Especially when the parents are healthy and their children can see love in their eyes.
Parents who are emotionally unavailable are often too busy to look into their children’s eyes. Or they are too uncomfortable themselves, or too shut down to reflect love. A child given minimal or no eye contact arrives at adulthood with crippling deficits.
Another parent who often fails to give eye approval is one who feels badly about herself or himself. One who has what I call “walls behind the eyes”–eyes that can see but are afraid to let anyone see inside them. These eyes don’t reflect love or admiration either. We sense that people can see into us through our eyes, and so we avoid eye contact. We don’t want to be vulnerable. But vulnerability is good.
Sometimes the love is there but we are afraid to have it seen. I developed this as a child. I had an older brother that I thought was the best! This was after my little brother came along, no doubt. My dad had a new baby to hold; I was four and I was looking for approval elsewhere. But my open-faced, wide-eyed expectation of approval didn’t get what it was looking for. This was about the time my sister and I became friends and he was left out. So I became the object of his rejection or anger. And my eyes began to close inside.
I could feel it as an adult, but had no idea where it had come from until I began to do my own internal work. Sadly, I was already a mother. Gladly, she was still young. I know I had enough self to give her the love and eye contact when she was tiny. I remember being so in love with her. Those God-given hormones that prepare us for bonding are amazing! They can overcome a lot!
But as children become more challenging it takes much more thought and choice to be present with them, especially in meaningful ways that build in healthy self-worth. They still need affection, even when it gets harder to give, and they become harder to love. And with step-children you can’t rely on the bond established by early hormones. They take more choice and commitment and thought. But that’s love. It is commitment more than feeling.
We can ask God to give us love for the people around us so they can see the love they need in our eyes. Think of it! God’s love flows through your eyes! Yesterday we were celebrating our loving pastor we lost to cancer. God had healed her so obviously, and then He allowed it to come back and take her. I mention her because she had such a gift of love and it seemed to come through her eyes so naturally to young and old alike. What a gift! There is nothing to be afraid of here. I believe we can ask for that gift and get it.