I said, “How are you?” to my son the other day after school and he replied, “OK, but I had a math test today that was hard.” It was obvious the tough math test weighed on my guy’s mind. It seems often my kids’ happiness depends on their grades or status in their extra curricular activities. Why is that? Because they believe their lovability and success are based on their performance.
So much emphasis has been put on their ability to get good grades and test scores, that they use the majority of their energy trying to accomplish that. The grades and test scores are really only a means to an end though. The ultimate prize is to get into a good school and/or make a lot of money. Whatever path leads to an acclaimed and financially successful career, they need to be on it, according to the local culture.
If they achieve at a high level, they will be worthy of love and respect and maybe they can rest?
I think they believe if they get to that kind of success they will be happy. I also think they believe that kind of achievement is what parents require to grant affection and approval. I actually know some parents who do parcel out attention and love based on their child’s academic or athletic success.
Appearance upkeep is a form of performance love
I have my version of performance love. I want my kids to take care of things and not make messes. If they do so, it’s way easier to shower them with affection. When they were little, I was worse. I was very focused on having the house perfect and their hair and clothes neat. I emphasized good behavior, mostly because I wanted to look like I was a good parent and my kids were well-disciplined. I was more focused on the outward appearances than the internal experiences of my children. I felt pressure to always appear I had it together. Not surprisingly, the kids didn’t seem to like that and thwarted me on most days.
Today, if they are nice to each other, I have way more energy to give hugs and attention too. Sadly, this is conditional and not ideal either.
Appearance upkeep is a form of performance too. I know parents who love to dress their kids adorably and have them do numerous acts to entertain anyone who’ll watch. It’s often, “Susie show Uncle Tim how you can do a somersault,” “Show Marta how you can count to 100,” “Put on your new outfit and do a fashion show.” Throwing parties to impress the neighbors and making kids wear uncomfortable but perfectly cute clothing is a cry for love from the parents. We are essentially asking if our kids are cute/smart/well-behaved enough to win our parenting 4.0 GPA.
It’s hard to love someone who conditionally loves you
It’s hard to love someone who only loves you for your performance. If someone focuses on earnings, task doing or image maintenance from you, there is not a lot of connection or intimacy in the relationship. I remember telling my ex-husband I just wanted to feel cherished. That was my not so clear way of saying I want to feel felt. I wanted him to see my internal self and understand and love it. Most of the time I just felt like a work partner. He’d probably say the same. I can’t honestly say I knew his internal feelings or loved him for them. We kept things surface oriented. Our outside world looked amazing, but we gave up connection to keep it up. We only let each other in when we were past repair.
It’s also hard to love someone who only focuses on surface success and never lets you into their soft vulnerable center. The kids with their cold, impersonal drive for achievement and lack of desire to collaborate or connect, keep us at arm’s length. When they don’t see warmth, collaboration or kindness as valuable or as a route to happiness, family life suffers. There is detachment. Everyone feels cut off or on their own.
Children are not attached to parents because it does not feel like their parents are attached to them. It feels like parents and society are attached to results, not the kids themselves. When we don’t feel understood or seen, we close off or rebel against.
How to remedy this disconnection?
The starting point and the primary goal in all our connections with children ought to be the relationship itself, not conduct or behavior. — Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Hold on to Your Kids
We need to re-collect or re-gather our children. According to Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Mate, authors of Hold on to Your Kids, when children are between eleven and seventeen months, we stop collecting them emotionally and start correcting and directing them. Interestingly, in a similar way, we stop courting a mate in an adult relationship once the relationship has been cemented (i.e. once the honeymoon phase is over). The result in both situations is a loss of connection within the relationship.
With our children, we need to keep inviting them into our relationship. We need to get in their face and space in a friendly, loving way. Collect them, especially when there has been a separation. Pay attention. Tune into our children and their hearts. Keep showing up and loving them, even when they don’t get all As or win the latest athletic contest. Make eye contact with them. Turn toward them when they talk. Greet them when they return and say goodbye or goodnight by collecting eye contact, a smile and a nod from them. Hug them and offer physical touch in warm, loving ways. Be there for them more than their peers. Help them with the hard stuff like homework and difficult decisions. Insist on family dinners together and talk about things other than successes. Ask them what they learned that day, for example.
What if they don’t want to connect?
A child who has been groomed to believe his parents only appreciate him for his good behavior or achievements, may be tough to reach on a warm and fuzzy level. They have turned off those feelings to avoid feeling hurt or disappointed because in the past their vulnerable reaching out and need for love was not met with unconditional caring. They are emotionally defended.
With these children we may have to start with simple gestures like conveying a sense of sameness or showing we are on their side in a situation. These are more easily digested bits of connection. We have to work our way up to them believing we find them special, significant, missed and deeply loved.
Praise is not the answer
Our goal is ultimately to provide a kind of unconditional acceptance that no peer or achievement can offer. Here’s an important point to consider when striving to re-collect our children beyond performance love: it cannot be done when demanded by the child or in a time when it could be misconstrued as a reward or something he or she earned. It is not praise.
It is a matter of conveying spontaneous delight in the child’s very being. Our tone of voice and merriment in our eyes are genuine and the child feels truly known and appreciated. So, ask for contact and connection precisely when the child is not asking for it or expecting it. We extend the invitation of love when the child is not achieving or impressing or expecting approval.
Relationships, not rewards
My biggest belief is that secure healthy relationships give us the most satisfaction in life. If we feel loved for who we are, not for what we earn, then we hit the jackpot. If we have a sense of belonging, we are golden. It’s not about being impressive. It’s about being connected.
What do you do to convey unconditional love? How is your love tied to achievement or expectations? How can you re-collect your children?
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