Why Connection Counts: Parenting From the Heart
By George Papageorge, M.A., LMFT
The Property Value Principle
We've heard it said that real estate is one of our best investments. According to experts there are three factors that contribute to the value of real estate, as well as helping property maintain its worth during difficult times: location, location, location!
As we take a moment to reflect on our parenting efforts and consider viewing our kids as our most valued investment, we find that similar principles apply. Much like the real estate principle, there are three factors that contribute to a child’s sense of value and its ability to maintain its value during rough times (a durable sense of self identity when faced with peer pressure). These three factors that are central to raising healthy kids are: connection, connection, connection!
Kids who feel emotionally connected to their families are kids who make healthier life choices, embrace the faith and values that they are raised with, and end up in healthy relationships in their adult lives. This idea of "connection" can become a practical guide and reference point by which we relate all of our parenting efforts—from carpooling to coaching, from daily family prayer time to timely discipline.
Understanding High Risk Behavior in Kids
How important is connecting with our kids? Studies indicate that kids who get mixed up in gang activity are not kids who are looking for a life of violence and crime, but in fact they are kids who are looking for family connection.
As we think through the importance of our connection that we have with our kids, another study catches the attention of fathers. The study indicated that girls who report that their fathers are either "physically or emotionally unavailable" are girls who end up being sexually active as teenagers three years earlier than the national average of 16.
The Price of Privilege
A couple of years ago I was reading a popular parenting book, The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine which confirmed what I had experienced working with teens over the past 10 years. Levine puts it this way:
"The various elements of a perfect storm—materialism , pressure to achieve, perfectionism, disconnection—are combining to create a crisis in America's culture of affluence...While many privileged kids project confidence and know how to make a good impression, alarming numbers lack the basic foundation of psychological development: an authentic sense of self. Even parents often miss the signs of significant emotional problems in their ‘star’ children."
The bottom line seems to reveal that this generation of kids has so much that points them to finding their identity in what they have and in what they do, that they end up confused about in who they are.
The Lost Art of Empathy
As we continue to reflect on why connection counts, a central interpersonal task can be found in our ability to tune in to and acknowledge the emotional experience of the other person, in this case our child. In simple terms, we are talking about empathy. Let's be sure to note that empathy is meant to work hand in hand with boundaries and limit-setting. Too often empathetic parents have poor boundary setting and boundary setting parents are low in empathy.
Another common mix up is when there is confusion between acknowledge and agree. As a result, we track with and acknowledge the child's emotional view as long as we agree. The opposite pattern is where we run into trouble. As we attempt to tune into the child, we track and offer emotional support up to the point of disagreement. Too often acknowledgement stops because we hold a different view or don't relate to their experience, resulting in emotional disconnection. The child then experiences this as conditional love.
The Journey of Love
Our awareness to know what they feel is strongly connected to having enough emotional awareness to know what we feel; emotionally aware parents raise emotionally aware children. Empathy is incorporated into our communication through the skill of active listening. Empathy is that journey of love where we are secure enough to leave our frame of reference and travel to the others' frame of reference in order to understand them and be present with them, resulting in connection and love.
Dr. John Gottman, a well-known psychologist and author of the book: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, speaks of his view of the importance of the parents' role in the emotional development of their children. Of the thousands of parents and children he has worked with, he states: "Our results tell a simple, yet compelling story. We have found that parents fall into one of two broad categories: those that give their children guidance about the world of emotion and those who don't."
As we think through ways that we can connect with our kids, we can be encouraged to know that emotional connecting can occur during most conversations and daily activities.
Where Good Psychology Finds Good Theology
As Orthodox Christians, we are blessed to discover that the healthiest and most sensible psychological principles are modeled and taught in scripture and by the Holy Tradition of the Church.
The unique characteristic of the Christian faith that distinguishes it from other world religions is that while other religions speak of mankind finding ways of reaching God, the Orthodox Christian faith offers the amazing grace of God finding ways of reaching us, and not bringing judgment, but love.
Interestingly, as we consider the central Orthodox Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, "God became man, so that man can become like God", (St. Athanasius) we reflect on how God put love and relationship above all else, leaving His frame of reference and entering ours. In Christ’s own journey of love, He emptied and humbled Himself (Philippians 2:7–8) in order to reach us, find us, be with us, and bringing connection. We see God's great act of empathy!
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan we learn about the story of a man who fell among thieves, “A certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.” Luke 10:33. It is in this compassion - it is in this connection - that we allow God to 'live and breathe' into our own personal lives, extending into our parenting efforts and into all of our relationships.
Love is a Four Letter Word
In the most basic terms, our kids spell love: T - I - M - E; and if your kids are as active as mine, love can also be spelled: P - L - A - Y. Building on this foundation, we find that our best conversations with our kids occur in their frame of reference not ours.
In our willingness and mindfulness to tune in to their world of emotions, we can cultivate a connection from the heart. Parenting from the heart guards us from being fear driven, ego driven or power driven, allowing us to stay connected through all their ages and stages. The profound story of God intersects with the story of mankind with His loving desire to be connected to His people, reminding us why connection counts.
George Papageorge is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Pleasanton, California. He works closely with the Metropolis of San Francisco Family Wellness Ministry and has facilitated several clergy couples' retreats, as well as parish retreats and seminars focusing on meaningful marriage, effective parenting as well as integrating healthy psychology with Orthodox spirituality. In his private practice, he works with families, couples and teenagers. George and his wife, Kim, have two children, Olivia (13) and Petros (8).