If one were to list all the cruelties and maltreatments, both physical and emotional, that parents and adults inflict on children under the guise of love, the list would be a long one. But, going beyond such sinister examples, even kissing and hugging may or may not convey to a child that he is loved.
Love is a feeling, an emotional state. Artists, writers, philosophers, poets have tried to define it. 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 how 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, more rich; it fills me with hope, trust, creative energy, and 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 and values I respect and who respects mine, who is available when needed, who listens and hears, who looks 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
Allow free exploration
Allow free choices
Give clear messages of how we feel and what we expect
To come back to spoiling, as this word also has many meanings, I will now use it to mean not spoiling the child (by making him a brat) but spoiling his 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 and create a safe environment in which the infant can safely explore, and the mother and father can relax.
We can “spoil” by controlling (“Do this now,” “Take this toy”). Many prescribed baby-stimulating projects advise us to do just that.
Real care is using the time we naturally spend with our babies to learn, teach, and 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, by overindulging, doing things for him. This is faster and easier. Real care is to allow the time, have the patience, and encourage even the youngest baby to do whatever he is capable of doing for himself.
Ask yourself what your baby means to you:
A plaything with whom you can play dollhouse?
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 praise him?
An extension of yourself who will fulfill your thwarted goals in life?
Of course, there is a little of all of these in all of us.
If my rumination on love leaves you more puzzled than reassured, here is a guideline: the combination of 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 does not mean selfish love) and therefore can accept and love their child, who reminds them so often of their own selves.