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Can too much love spoil my child

That question has reared its head so many ways, so many times! The letters you sent in even hinted of this theme: “Is ‘better late than never’ really true?” – “I’ve carried him from 8 pounds to 24 pounds: how to put him down?” – “When and how to discipline? Am I giving too much? What can I expect of a 15 month-old?” Madge answers your letters first. 

“Better late than never?” Yes! Learning is an ongoing process. It’s not like you missed at the beginning so chalk everything up. Life is change. You have to be aware that change is difficult for everybody involved. For the parent and child both. When you want to introduce some kind of new approach or philosophy, know that the child will have to learn gradually, to understand and hopefully to accept. There will be no change if you are too uptight, too inflexible. Move things slowly … and they will move. 

And for the 24-pound carried baby? If your body is aching, your back throbbing and you are winded and tired from constant carrying, this doesn’t sound like a loving, pleasurable experience for either of you. The more you ache from the weight, the more your son will demand of you. He will demand even more of you because he wants something he is missing: a loving, soothing, relaxed mother. Wean him gently from that pick-up-and-carry pattern and replace it with yourself. Give him you and your time, not just your arms to lift him. And do this not when he screams, but when he is peaceful. When he cries to be held and carried around tell him soothingly, in your way, that you don’t want to carry him-he is too big. And then don’t pick him up. Wait until he is calm again, and then give him some “you-time.” 

And to the question of “when and how to discipline? Am I giving too much?” Madge feels that most mothers feel insecure about discipline. Then again, most find it quite easy to discipline in times of obvious danger. A knife on the floor? No ambivalence there-instant NO! But if you find that what the child is doing, the noise she’s making, the things she gets into-if what she is doing is bugging you, no matter how irrational the annoyance, you can slowly change the child’s pattern. But you cannot preach and teach the things you want the child to learn. You must be them. It is not what you do but who you are that matters. If a parent screams, yells, grabs, be aware that it’s hard to tell your child not to scream, yell or grab. Gentle, sharing parents most probably will have gentle, sharing children. And be clear in your messages to your child. Let her know what you approve and disapprove of. Let your face mirror your happiness, your anger. She will learn from you-not society. If you want her to act according to society’s patterns, then you must stage them for her. You are her world. If you say “thank you,” eventually so will she. 

And now to the theme of this column: “Can too much love spoil the child?” Love? No! But many ways of demonstrating love? Yes! The list would be endless to tell all the atrocities both physical and emotional that adults inflict upon children in the name of love. Even kissing and hugging may not always convey to a child that she or he is loved. 

Love is a feeling–an emotional state that artists, writers, philosophers, poets, have tried to define. Marcel Proust says “Love is space and time measured by the heart.” What is space and time? It is the here and now. It is you. 

As, unfortunately, I am no poet, I will try to recall from my own experience what it feels to be truly loved by someone: It makes me feel good, it opens me up, it gives me strength, I feel less vulnerable, less lonely, less helpless, less confused, more honest, richer. It fills me with hope, trust, creative energy, it refuels me. 

How do I perceive the other person who gives me these feelings? As honest. As one who sees and accepts me for what I really am; who objectively responds without being critical; whose authenticity I respect, and who respects mine; who is available when needed, who listens and hears, who looks at and sees me, who shares herself, who cares. 

Cares. To care is to put love in action. The way we care for our babies is then how they experience our love. How and when we pick them up; smile at them; talk to them; hug and kiss them; tolerate their crying; set limits; restrain them; allow frustration; allow free exploration; allow free choice; foster independence; teach responsibility; give them clear messages of how we feel; teach them what we expect of them. 

To come back to spoiling. As ”spoiling” is a word which has many meanings, I will use it now to mean spoiling not the child-making him or her a brat-but rather, spoiling his or her capacity to cope with life. In the name of love we can “spoil” by overprotecting: “don’t do this,” “be careful,” “watch out,” “don’t touch.” Real care is to take the time to create a safe environment in which the infant can safely explore and the mother can relax. 

We can spoil by controlling: ‘do this now ...,” “take this toy” (Many prescribed baby-stimulating projects give this kind of controlling advice.) Real care is using the time we naturally spend with our babies to learn, teach, experience together what is happening. 

We can spoil by constantly entertaining. Thus taking away their natural curiosity and capacity to entertain themselves. Boredom is not in a young child’s repertoire in an adequate environment. We can easily condition a child to be bored. 

We can spoil by overindulging. By doing things for them which might be easier and faster for us to do, but real care is allowing the time, having the patience, and giving encouragement to even the youngest baby to do whatever he or she is capable of doing for her/himself. 

Ask yourself what does your baby mean to you? A plaything you can play doll house with? A helpless creature who makes you feel omnipotent? A puppet you can make dance to your tune? A love object who gives you sensuous pleasure? A pet who wags his tail when you pet him? An extension of yourself who will fulfill your thwarted goals in life? Of course there is a little of each of these in all of us. It’s when we let one of these directions become imbalanced that problems can arise. 

If my ruminations on love leave you more puzzled than reassured, here is a guideline: Combine Love-Care-Respect. Lucky is the child who grows up with parents who basically accept and love themselves. (Read Erich Fromm’s, The Art of Loving to understand that this doesn’t mean selfish love.) For if you approve of yourself, it is easier to accept and love the child who reminds you so often of your own self. 

Copyright@Magda Gerber and Cara Wilson-Granat

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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