It was at the baseball diamond on my 36th birthday that I stumbled upon a breaking point. It came as a deep gut conviction, a weary heartfelt and tear-filled prayer, and a holy call from my Lord.
After an embarrassing stand-off in left field with my seven-year-old, in which I could not convince him to comply, I came home feeling defeated. When our four little ones were finally asleep, I sat beside my most defiant, stubborn and sensitive boy, and wept. In those moments of prayer, I vowed to give my “all” so that he would always feel unconditionally loved and absolutely secure.
The week I stumbled into this refreshed commitment to love better I had been reading Gabor Maté’s book Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healings of Attention Deficit Disorder, and I had been feeling the grave importance of being a constant, steady and emotionally self-regulated parent to my not-so-self-regulated child.
In searching for techniques to parent a child who has ADD—we’re in the process of having him diagnosed—this book reminded me that no technique, discipline plan, schedule or punishment/rewards tactic will have an ounce of success if the parent is not emotionally self-regulated, confident, calm and loving.
Basically, how we parent doesn’t matter, but who is parenting is what makes the entire difference. So that means who I am—my state of mind, my ability to self-regulate, my resilience in the face of my kid’s frustrated meltdowns, and my capacity to ensure he feels loved and secure—is the single defining factor to promote his growth and development. Talk about a tall order for this mama!
Later that week, as I dove more into what this means and how my son can heal, I realized more and more how much his success lies with me and my husband. Maté writes, “The relationships with the parents is the earth, the rain, the sun and the shade in which the child’s mental development must blossom.”
I need to nurture our relationship, whatever it might take. I need to show a deep and unfailing love to my son, and not let his antics get under my skin. When he’s picking fights with his brother and sister, making us late for school and keeping the little ones awake at bedtime, it’s hard not to flood him with negative attention and demands to be different, better, calmer, more attentive. But when at school and at home he is constantly fed a message that he’s not doing things right, how does that affect his inner peace and sense of worth?
I want my son to know deeply how much he is loved, just the way he is. I want him to know, in his heart of hearts, that he is exactly the person I want him to be, exactly the person God created him to be, and feel completely safe in his identity.
As Maté writes, “The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved. Ways have to be found to let the child know that certain behaviours are unacceptable without making the child herself feel not accepted. She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likable side, to the parent without fear that it would threaten the relationship. When that is made possible, absolute security is established. We can reliably expect emotional growth to follow.”
If I am to create the space for my child to feel unconditionally loved and absolutely secure, I believe that I, first, need to feel and believe this truth. If I know in my heart of hearts that I am precisely the person God wants and loves, and that I don’t have to do anything or be any different to earn that love, then I will have the confidence, love and maturity to create that same foundation for my child.
With God’s abundant grace when I fail, and also my son’s grace, a supportive community around me, and my deep God-given passion to love, I feel fully up to the call of this holy and most-difficult task of parenting.
Christina Bartel Barkman, with her four little ones and her pastor husband, seeks to live out Jesus’ creative and loving “third way” options.