There are a thousand ways to raise a happy and healthy child. I have seen strict parents and lenient parents do it. I have watched intact families, single parents, rich and poor, manage to instill a sense of purpose and meaning in their children. There is no grand formula, no one set of criteria for success save one: There is a sense of relationship between parent and child. However misguided, lopsided, or messy the connection may be, if there is a relationship, there is hope, there is forgiveness, there is a certain elasticity that absorbs the lurches of mistakes and failure. It can be time consuming. It can disrupt schedules and interrupt well laid plans, but there are few things in life more rewarding.
It is important to remember a good relationship is earned, and not granted on some magical day when we have more time, more money, and everything crossed off our lists of things-to-do. Whether it is a connection with our partner, our children, or our friends, the vital underpinnings of healthy relationships include understanding, interest, warmth, and enjoyment. William Glasser, a psychiatrist and educator, calls them the four A’s of healthy relationships: Acceptance, attention, affection, and appreciation.
Everyone wants to be understood. Not necessarily agreed with, or approved of, simply understood---in the classroom, the boardroom, around the world, and in our homes. If we can manage to get into one another’s shoes and see life as the other might see it, it makes a remarkable contribution toward love and conflict resolution. Bump this concept up to a grander scale and it promotes world peace. To be understood when we feel overworked, underappreciated, ignored, or hurting is a powerful antidote to the cultural disenfranchising process running rampant today, and it is one of our most powerful tools of influence as parents. When you understand and accept a child with all their gifts and difficulties, he or she is suddenly lovable, worthy of regard and not just another problem to solve. We all need a harbor, a safe place where we feel accepted for who we are, and not who we may become. Acceptance is the understanding that we are all human trying to do the best job we can with what we’ve got.
Our middle son was born between strong and outgoing siblings that took up much of my time and energy. As a toddler he was more introverted and self-contained than the others, but every once in a while he would go through periods when my time was too spare for his comfort and he acted out with furious abandon. That is when we played the I-See-You Game, nothing more than calling out loud all his movements and actions. “I see you walking and jumping up and down, grabbing a book. Oh look! I see you have grown so much you can carry 4 books at once. You are strong. I see you are walking with big feet and strong muscles. You are waiting for me to put baby down for a nap so we can read. You are sitting beside me.“ It worked like magic. He would calm. I kept eye contact. Most of the time five minutes of I-See-You brought the boy back to himself. Adults are the same. I see you had a hard day. I see you trying to juggle several things at once. I see you are my beautiful one. Attention is one of the simplest things we can give, but it is easily squeezed out of the day with the velocity of our lives. We are moving too fast, burdened with too much, to pay real attention to our loved ones. Yet paying close attention does not take any longer than drinking a cup of coffee or reading the newspaper. Attention is in eye contact, in stooping down to the level of your child, in setting aside the task and listening with everything you’ve got. It is within reach for even the busiest people, and is simply a choice away.
It was a bad day for our eleven year-old daughter. Her new cat had run away. School had started recently and her friends were preoccupied with others. She was on the uncertain threshold between girl and young woman. Everything seemed confusing. One moment she was light filled and gleaming, the next she railed against everything in her path. She slumped into the kitchen after school and threw herself down in the nearest chair. It was tricky. I could ask what was wrong. I could ignore her and act cheery. Or I could do what my own mother did with me on bad days and gather her into my arms and fold her up. My default mothering, the one that rises up unbidden when things get emotional and takes over, is embedded in my own childhood for better or worse. One of the better parts is filled with affection. I feel lucky. In some ways it was like being raised in a litter of puppies with an abundance of sprawls and licks and close proximity to people I love. Feet on laps, linked arms, braided hair and kisses good morning, kisses good night. I thought everybody lived that way. In the end I told her she looked like she needed a hug, and I smooched her behind the ear 10 times because it tickles and it always makes her close her eyes and smile. We sprawled on the couch together and talked about our bad days, I had one too, you know, I told her. We snuggled for a time then rose and went our separate ways feeling warm and connected.
Showing affection is not all kisses and hugs. It can take the shape of a warm look, a hand on the shoulder, a tucked in blanket at night before bed. It is your hands holding a face and smiling, brushing hair gently, scratching an itch for someone, and holding him up when he feels like he is falling. Affection is the balm laid on an emotional wound or a difficult day. It is kind regard expressed physically with a touch or a hold. It is easier for some people than others to express affection. Many close-knit families are more reserved and save demonstrative behavior for special occasions. The most important thing is authenticity. If you don’t normally kiss and hug, it can feel strange if you suddenly act as if it is important; for then it becomes a duty performed in a sea of obligations. Affection, above all, is not a duty.
Appreciation is an invisible currency not always available when we need it most. It is hard to appreciate someone when her energy steam rolls over ours, or fatigue or stress dims the attention needed to really see him, but appreciation in a relationship is a precious thing. It can buy a sense of wellbeing, an awareness of yourself and the impact you have, and a feeling of belonging to a family, to an organization, or to a community. It translates across the board in the human condition. Appreciation is understanding the value of someone, of his or her efforts, or integral nature. I appreciate our son’s sense of humor that can change my day by making me laugh. I appreciated our daughter’s loyalty to her younger brothers on the school bus when they were young. I appreciate my husband’s need for downtime on weekends, for it gives us more spontaneity on a Sunday afternoon. Appreciation has its roots in gratitude and its crown in recognition. It is considering and being grateful for the qualities that make up an individual, and then recognizing them aloud. There are few feelings as gratifying as hearing a compliment about yourself in passing conversation, even if it is as simple as noticing the effort to help, or calling a child a kind person. Keep in mind that appreciation is not a rush of compliments or a strategy for esteem building. It is an authentic admiration of the good traits of which everyone possesses, even if they are scattered and buried down deep.
In the end, if I have done my work as a writer, this essay may surface in your thoughts or in a conversation with another parent. A funny thing will happen. As you begin to think about the four A’s of a good relationship, you are likely to rattle off three of the four easily. Pay attention to the one attribute you forgot. It will be the one you need to work on, the one that does not come as easily as the others. I have found over the years, one time I may forget appreciation, most of the time I forget acceptance. I have never forgotten affection. It is a metaphysical reminder that nudges me as a parent, as a wife, as a daughter, and a sister. The forgetting, and then the remembering is all part of the rich process of relationships.