It is early morning and I have a rare opportunity to go out to a coffee shop for a wake-up cup of coffee with my husband. It is summer break, but all five of my children are up and in various stages of getting dressed and having breakfast. I am counting on my older ones to keep an eye on my younger ones. As we are trying to get out the door, I ask, “Is everything in order? Is it clear what to do for breakfast? Do you need anything?”, expecting to hear requests for more directions, or a casual “mhm” in the middle of munching. Instead, two of my kids run over and say, “We need a hug!” I hug them, hold them tight, and go out the door.
What do our children need from us? They need their basic survival needs met: food, clothing and shelter. They need to feel secure living in their homes. Everything else seems to fall into the “wants” category: screen time, pocket money for the latest obsession, a specific clothing item or a toy, a particular food, books, and of course, attention. Children often use great attention-grabbing techniques, like waltzing into the room and breaking out into a performance, expecting all eyes to turn toward them. We, as parents, also have needs: a need to work to make money, a need for downtime, a need for adult time… How do we balance the needs of our children with our full lives?
There are many good strategies out there: tag team with your spouse on who watches the kids while the other one gets free time, hire a nanny or a babysitter, teach children that they do not always come first, set and enforce boundaries, reach out to extended family and friends for childcare favors. Some of these strategies sound so good: find a flexible job in a field that you are passionate about, ask for part-time or flex-time, make sure there is childcare on site so that you can visit your little ones on your lunch break, work fewer hours. I wonder how many real-world jobs match this description and how many women agonize over not being able to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Meanwhile, the children seem to have needs that go beyond working out the demanding logistics.
Returning to the needs of children: is this an exhaustive list of everything they need? If we are to treat them as pets, or as organisms to be kept alive, then the answer is “yes”. If we are hoping to raise thinking, empathetic human beings created in G-d’s image, then the list needs a few additions.
Every child needs to know that he or she is loved. Hold your eye roll, because of course I know that you love your kid, and you know that you love your kid, but does your kid know this? Does your child feel this? Do you get the message of love across to your child, not only at the times when he makes you proud or when you are gushing with love, but also when you are at your wits’ end? It is easy to love children who are loveable, but often the ones who are behaving in a seemingly unlovable manner are the ones who need assurance of parental devotion the most. Do you see your child entering a room as an assortment of clothing that needs to be fixed and a face that needs to be wiped, or do you delight in her presence and bite your tongue about unbrushed hair and shoes on the wrong feet? Do you show affection to your child in the way that he requests and respect his boundaries?
One of my children is a major hugger. I did not grow up with a lot of physical affection, so hugging is not something that comes naturally to me. But I realized that it is better to teach children to ask for hugs and give them out freely than to wait for your child to find other, less appropriate ways to seek your bodily contact. In our case, it meant tackling and jumping on people’s backs. As soon as freely given hugs took over, the other form of body contact ceased. On the other hand, each one of my children went through a tuck-in stage at night when one day they decided that they did not want goodnight kisses. They were all so cute, so sweet, so cuddly-looking, lying under the covers in their jammies that I really, really just wanted to hold them and kiss them. But I restrained myself and had to be schooled that love means respecting their boundaries. In an interesting twist, at some point or other, most of them returned back to goodnight hugs.
The next need of our children is our full presence. My youngest is most likely to express it when she climbs into the parental lap for snuggles: she will physically remove objects that might be cutting into that attention, such as books or cell phones. If she feels that it did not do the trick, she will put her hands on my face and turn it to face her. When she wants me to be present, she wants me to be fully present for HER. She wants to know that she is the star of my universe, even if this setup lasts for only five minutes. Then she is more than content to share her parent with the rest of the world.
Tying in to the previous need is the need for time, preferably of the unlimited variety. In order to be fully present with our children, we need to spend enough time with them so that they feel comfortable being themselves. I saw advice on parenting teens in New York Times: be a potted plant in the same room as your teen. This way, you are not meddling in their activities, while you are present when they decide to share. Car rides can serve the same purpose. Very often, parents lament how in today’s busy life there is very little time to waste just sitting around. There are chores to be done, errands to run, phone calls to be made. There is never-ending pull of email and social media. For those who work, there are long hours devoted to a career, often followed with spillover into evenings and weekends. There is chessed to be performed and various worthy causes in need of volunteers. There is elusive “me” time, necessary for self-care and mental health. The last thing most parents want to do is to sit around their children, simply observing them, or not engaging in a preplanned activity with a clear goal. Yet our children need this background parental presence the most. They need to know that you will devote time to them without expecting a tangible result at the end. Most of the times that my children have spontaneously broken into appreciation or a confession was following one of these open-ended interactions. Our children need to know that they matter more than a job, more than dry-cleaning, more than a clean floor and more than a meme. They might not be able to vocalize this need for parental time, or they might put in fantastical requests (a week in Israel!) but they are really saying: am I able to get through to you? Am I worth a week in Israel? Could you drop your busy life and literally fly away with me so that you only see me?
The biggest caveat to meeting all of our children’s needs is that there are times in our lives when we are more able to do so, and then there are times when this is seemingly impossible. A new baby, a health crisis, financial difficulties, moving, and mental health struggles naturally take over, not to mention such crises as divorce or abuse. Then the level of children’s needs drops back to sheer survival. But if our goal is to raise more than survivors, we need to set our sights higher and attempt to keep these higher-level needs in mind.
I would like to conclude with a very simple solution to finding out the needs of our children: ask them directly. Ask them often, and listen to answers without judgment. Be curious and open-minded. Be aware that the answer given by one is not the answer given by all. The needs might change; the requests will take on different forms. Always keep in mind that the children squabbling under your roof and tugging on your sleeves are the souls on loan from G-d, saplings waiting to be nourished. Water them freely with expressive love, presence, and time, and watch them grow into stable and confident human beings.