It's easy to fall in love with our kids when they're babies. After all, there's something enchanting about tiny translucent fingers and rosebud lips.
Of course, the downside to babies is that they never sleep when they're supposed to, and they produce a variety of bodily substances impervious to every known stain remover on the market today. And I haven't even mentioned diapers yet: I have two children, and if I had a dollar for every diaper I've changed, my net worth would be something even Thurston Howell the Third could get excited about.
But none of those things matter when you're in love. Because that's what happens, isn't it? Your baby gazes at you with adoring eyes, she coos your name and pats your face with chubby fingers, and something inside you melts.
But as your children grow, they learn all sorts of new things: how to talk back, roll their eyes when you ask them to do something, and pretty much push all your hot buttons. Within a few years, that baby nursery you decorated so painstakingly is sporting a grunge motif and the precious toddler who won your heart has been replaced by a child-shaped alien with a bad attitude.
Do you still love your children? Absolutely.
Are you in love with them? Is there a difference?
It's no secret that sometimes married love is more about commitment than passion—and yet no one denies that passion is worth fighting for. Walk into any bookstore and you'll find volumes on how to rekindle romance . . . how to fall in love again . . . how to enjoy greater emotional intimacy.
What about that kind of relationship with our kids? There's no question we love our children. After all, we wash their socks, screen their friends, supervise their chores. We mend torn hems, scraped knees, and broken hearts. We are committed to their growth and well-being. We would give our lives for them.
But do we feel emotionally connected with our kids? Enjoy their company? Relish their witty remarks? Cherish our time together? Hang on their words as they tell us stories from their day? When we're together, do we feel joy?
If you're like me, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't. Parenting is hard work. Now and then I'd love a vacation from it all. Yet despite my feelings, my commitment to my children wins out.
I commend the mom who, after a long day, makes the choice to override her overwhelming desire to flee to Mexico and instead steels herself and takes her children to Chuck E. Cheese's for some madhouse memory-making.
I admire the mother whose every nerve is screaming for Calgon as she tells her preschooler through clenched jaws, "Of course I'll read I'm a Bunny one more time, Tommy."
Being motivated by commitment is a legitimate expression of love. It takes effort, but it has the power to build the esteem of our children and deepen our relationships with them.
Unless . . . it's all they get.
To grow the best memories, our kids have to know that sometimes we seek out their company not because we know we should, but because we just can't resist. They need to know we're not merely committed to them but crazy about them. Here are five ways to enrich your relationship with your kids and rediscover the romance of parenting:
Spend time together. Shortly after my daughter Kaitlyn was born, I remember my husband coming home, looking around a home characterized by disarray, and voicing those six seemingly innocent words that strike terror in the heart of any stay-at-home-mom: "So, what did you do today?"
After several weeks spent unsuccessfully fielding this question, I decided to answer this annoying probe once and for all. I documented my activities, and when Larry came home that evening, I was ready for him:
"What did I do today? I changed 19 diapers and played peek-a-boo 7 times. I spent an accumulated total of 97 minutes singing nursery rhymes and making animal noises. I washed 1 load of baby clothes and wiped spit-up out of my hair 3 times. I spent an accumulated total of 4 hours breast feeding in that very recliner."
Babies take time.
Is it any wonder we love them?
The Bible tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Time is a treasure. Where we invest our time, our heart will follow.
As our children mature, the demands on their time become more complex. While my two-year-old is glued to my hip, my ten-year-old is busy with school and gymnastics and friends. Time together—time that's vital if we want to mature loving feelings in our relationship—seems harder to come by as she grows.
When our babies are little, they chase us (if I had a dollar for every time I've heard the word "Mama" . . .). But when they're older, we may need to do the chasing! If we value our relationships with our kids, it's imperative to carve time out of busy schedules to be together.
Play, don't preach. When our children are toddlers, there's little use for formal instruction. The lectures, reprimands, and long-winded analyses that seem so indispensable when they're older don't have much impact during those Desitin years.
So what do we do instead? We play.
Remember? Itsy Bitsy Spider . . . Patty Cake . . . Five Little Monkeys . . . Peek-a-boo?
As our kids mature, so does their comprehension, and suddenly we can communicate with them in so many other ways! We can lecture, instruct, chat, write notes, even shake a finger.
Unfortunately, in the process of gaining so many options, we sometimes abandon the form of communication that meant so much during those vital, formative years. What a mistake!
So play with your kids: Throw a ball. Wrestle in the snow. Stage tickle-fests. Break out the board games. Buy some water guns and balloons and spend a hot Saturday afternoon cooling off. And whatever you do, don't be a martyr. Find an activity that is pleasing to both you and your child and watch as your enjoyment of each other soars to new heights.
Give undivided attention. Have you ever tried to tell a baby, "I'll be with you in a minute, sweetie"? Basically, you and I both know that doesn't work. Babies demand our undivided attention. And if we don't give it to them—immediately—they scream at the top of their lungs until we do.
Of course, we don't allow that kind of behavior from our children once they're old enough to understand the concept of patience, nor should we. And yet older kids need our undivided attention, too. They may have to wait five minutes or two hours until we've finished whatever it is we're doing, but once we turn our attention to them, they need to feel we're theirs and theirs alone.
What is a key ingredient of undivided attention? Eye contact. When our children are telling us about their day at school, or lamenting a friendship gone sour, or explaining in painstaking detail the cool new video game a best friend just bought, it's tempting to nod now and then as we prepare dinner or fold laundry. But if we want to use the opportunity to really bond with our kids, looking them in the eyes and giving our undivided attention work wonders.
Reach out and touch someone. If our relationships with our babies could be characterized by any one dynamic, it would be touch. Holding, feeding, dressing, and comforting a little one means physical contact. In fact, their survival depends on it!
As our babies grow, they gain mobility and independence. Before long, they get themselves through their day without much physical help from us. But when it comes to their emotional well-being, touch remains as important as ever!
Make touch an important part of your relationship with your school-aged child or teen. Hug. Tickle. Hold her face in your hands as you tell her how much you love her. Wrap your arm through his as you trek across the parking lot after church. Even a pat on the back means a lot.
As kids grow, affectionate gestures from parents (especially in front of friends) can seem embarrassing. Tailor your affection so it doesn't traumatize your peer-conscious adolescent. But don't give up. Look for frequent, appropriate ways to share a touch with your child.
Cherish your children the way they are today. With babies, we don't usually let our expectations for their behavior get too far ahead of their development. In fact, we cherish these first few years, lamenting the passage of time.
Yet as our kids mature, we can become so caught up pushing them toward more responsible adult behavior that we forget to cherish whatever stage they're currently in, with all the immaturities, silliness, and goofball behaviors that go along with being eight or ten or fifteen.
Kaitlyn is maturing physically and intellectually as well. I have to remind myself frequently that she's ten, and that ten-year-olds should not be expected to act like thirty-year-olds, no matter how much their mothers beg, bribe, or cajole.
How do I cherish Kaitlyn the way she is today? I often say to her, "Ten (or nine or eight) is such a wonderful age! Enjoy being ten, Kaitlyn; it's a great year!" Sometimes I ask her to tell me what it's like to be ten. What does she like the most? What doesn't she like? It's a great way to encourage communication. But it also serves as a reminder to me. These are precious, fleeting years I want to appreciate before they're gone forever.
There's no doubt tensions can rise between parents and kids. When this happens at my house, my first inclination is to break out the heavy artillery: no TV, no friends, double-duty on chores, being sent to their rooms.
Although there's a time and place for disciplinary action, sometimes what's needed even more is a reconnection between parent and child. There are moments when the very best attitude-adjuster is a hug and a heart-to-heart.
If our goal is to raise perfect kids, we need a reality check. If our goal is to be a perfect parent, we're going to fail at that too! The good news is that if our children know they're loved—fiercely and passionately—we have a chance. Just as our fellowship with God is not based on perfect performance but rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ, one of our greatest strengths as parents is not necessarily the things we strive to "do right," but the emotional intimacy we fight to create and maintain with our kids.
Our commitment to our kids helps us plod through some of life's more stressful or distracting seasons. Our unfettered joy at the privilege of raising them helps us soar. Both are necessary. To think we can make it through our years of parenting with all passion and no plodding is unrealistic. To think we can make it on sheer commitment and no romance is sad.
We already love our kids—and we can fall in love with them too. Emotional intimacy in any relationship doesn't always come easy, and it takes some work. But the rewards are worth the effort!
Karen Linamen is a speaker and author of six books, her latest being Pillow Talk, The Intimate Marriage from A to Z (Revell). She lives in Texas with her family.
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