Connecting Through Filling the Love Cup
|by Pam Leo
"How we treat the
child, the child will treat the world."
Human beings have a nutritional need for vitamin C, and when
that need is not met, we cannot survive. For example, sailors died
from scurvy on long sea voyages because they didn't know about a
vital missing element in their diet. In 1747, a ship's doctor,
James Lind, discovered that something in citrus fruits cured
scurvy. Nearly fifty years later, in 1795, when the British Royal
Navy began supplementing the sailors' diet with a daily ration of
lime or lemon juice, sailors stopped dying of scurvy.
Human beings also have a biological and emotional need for
human connection. When that need is not met, we survive but we do
not thrive. Human beings have an incredible ability to adapt to
most living conditions that allow us to survive. However, we do
not thrive when we have to adapt to living conditions that do not
meet our biological and emotional needs.
Children today have to adapt to living conditions that do not
meet their biological and emotional needs. A vital element is
missing in their living conditions. The sailors were unaware that
they were missing a dietary element essential to their health. As
a culture we have been unaware that the essential element, key to
a child's wellbeing, is missing for many children in today's
The element missing in the sailors' living conditions was
vitamin C. The missing element in our children's living conditions
is also "C": connection. Just as we need a minimum daily
requirement of vitamin C to survive, we need a minimum daily
requirement of human connection to thrive.
There is, and has been for decades, an abundance of
well-documented research confirming that a strong parent-child
connection is essential to optimal brain development. Connection
affects children's physical, psychological, and emotional
Children's need for a strong parent-child connection used to be
met naturally by how we birthed and nurtured children and by our
lifestyle. Over time, changes in the way we birth and nurture
children, combined with today's hectic lifestyle, have compromised
drastically the strength of the parent-child connection.
|Parents today have busier lives, with less support
from extended family, and less time with their children than ever
before. Between work, childcare, school, lessons, and activities,
many parents and children are together for only a few waking hours
a day. Even when we are with our children, we are preoccupied with
daily life maintenance, the telephone, the television, the
computer, and the stress of trying to do more than we have time to
|Just keeping a roof over their heads,
food on the table, and clothes on their backs (as our parents used
to say) demands so much of parents that there is little time or
energy left for loving connection. The strength of the
parent-child bond has not been compromised by lack of love; it has
been compromised by our lifestyle. While connection parenting
won't give you more time, it will support you in spending the time
you do have with your children, in ways that meet their emotional
Children need at least one person in their life who thinks the
sun rises and sets on them, someone who delights in their
existence and loves them unconditionally. In today's lifestyle,
having the time and attention to delight in our children is as
difficult as trying to stop and smell the roses while running a
marathon. However, if we knew that smelling the pleasant aroma of
the roses would spur us on to win the race, we would pace
ourselves to include rose-smelling time. Once we become aware of
our children's biological and emotional needs, we can learn to
nurture them in ways that meet those needs.
Two of children's most important emotional needs are healthy
self-worth and healthy self-esteem. Children's self-worth is their
belief about their worthiness; their belief about how they deserve
to be treated. Their self-esteem is their belief about how
capable, competent, and valued they are. Children are not born
with any beliefs about themselves. Children learn what to believe
about themselves from how we treat them.
Children always believe they deserve how we treat them.
If we treat children lovingly, they believe they are lovable.
Children who are not treated as worthy and valuable believe there
is something wrong with them. They believe "it is me"
rather than there is something wrong with the way they are being
treated. How we treat children determines whether they have
healthy or unhealthy self-worth and self-esteem.
"There are two lasting bequests
we can give our children: One is roots; the other is wings."
- Nodding Carter
Giving children "roots and wings"
The gift of roots is the gift of healthy self-worth. Healthy
self-worth is a core belief that one's needs matter and that one
is worthy of being treated with love and respect. We give children
the gift of roots and a strong bond by spending enough time in
loving connection with them to give them the message that they are
worthy of love. When we treat children lovingly, they learn to
love themselves and others.
||The gift of wings is the gift of healthy
self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem is a core belief that one is
capable, competent, and valued by others. We give children the
gift of wings by providing opportunities for them to become
capable and feel valued. When we value children, they learn to
value themselves and others.
|The Roots of Healthy Self-worth:
Filling the Love Cup
Just as children have a cup to store their unreleased hurts,
they have an emotional fuel tank or love cup. A child's love cup
holds their emotional fuel. Their emotional fuel is the attention,
connection, and nurturing they receive from the people they love.
Meeting children's emotional need for connection by filling
their love cup is as important as meeting their physical need for
food. Spending time filling a child's love cup is proactive
parenting. Just as children get cranky when they get hungry, they
get cranky when their love cup gets low on emotional fuel. Most
difficult behaviors are either the release of emotional pain - a
hurts-cup spillover or a communication signaling lack of
connection - an empty love cup.
Filling the Love Cup with "High" Quality Time
In today's culture, we talk about spending quality time with
children. We know that children need attention, but attention is
not the same as connection. We can pay attention to children and
still not connect with them emotionally. Children need high
quality time to meet their minimum daily requirement for
connection. We provide high quality time by engaging with
Adults consider taking children to the playground spending
quality time with them. For children, quality is determined
by "how" we spend time with them. Taking children to the
playground and watching them play is quality time because we are
giving them attention by watching and acknowledging their
gravity-defying feats on the monkey bars. Playing tag with
children at the playground is high quality time because we
connect by engaging in the activity with them. We give
children attention by watching and acknowledging them. We provide
connection by engaging with them. Attention feels good, hut
connection feels better. Children seeking attention are
"The single most important skill
parents can acquire is playing." - Lawrence J. Cohen, author,
Filling the Love Cup with Play
Actively playing with children is the most powerful way we can
connect and fill a child's love cup. The kind of play children
crave the most is the kind of play many parents do the least. This
is the physically active play of chase and capture, hide and seek,
piggybacks, pony rides, and the roughhouse wrestling that makes
children giggle and laugh and ask for more, more, and more. This
kind of play emotionally connects adults and children and
strengthens the bond.
Most parents actively play with babies. We patty-cake,
peek-a-boo, and bounce them on our knees. We sacrifice all dignity
doing silly things to make babies laugh. However, once they are
bigger and can play by themselves or with other children, we
usually spend much less time actively playing with our children.
|There are some adults, often - but not always -
dads, who seem to excel naturally at this kind of physical play.
However, few children get as much as they need of this kind of
play. Whether we don't have the energy, are too distracted, too
busy, or we just never learned how (because no one played actively
with us), we usually aren't as playful as our children beg us to
|Even if playing doesn't come naturally
to us, we can learn how to be more playful, and communicate our
love for our children in ways that strengthen our connection.
Lawrence J. Cohen, author of one of my favorite parenting books, Playful
Parenting, says, "Unlike many personality changes we
might like to make, better playing skills can be pretty easily
I can confirm that what he says is true. I have never been one
of those adults who excelled at physical play. 1 didn't get much
of that kind of play as a child, and thus I didn't initiate that
kind of play with my children or my grandchildren. Since reading
Cohen's book, to the delight of my grandchildren and their
friends, I'm getting good at playing, roughhousing, and silliness.
For parents like me, for whom physically active play doesn't
come naturally, learning to play is work. The exciting aspect of
the work of learning to play is that the pay-off is priceless. The
smiles, giggles, laughter, affection, and connection that bubble
up from a rollicking playtime can change our whole day - even our
whole relationship with a child.
||Knowing first-hand the value of this kind of play,
and hearing the excited reports of parents' experiences with being
more playful, I now see play as one of the most important ways we
connect with our children. Play is the language of children. As
Cohen points out, children already know how to use play to
connect, to heal their hurts, and develop confidence. Physically
active play not only fills a child's need for attention; it fills
the need for touch and deep connection.
Children lose confidence when they feel powerless. They
disconnect either by withdrawing or by trying to control things.
We help children regain their confidence when we play role-
reversal games that put the child in the powerful role. Nothing
gives us a more accurate picture of how our children see us than
playing the "pretend the child is parent and the parent is
the child" game. Children delight in making us brush our
teeth and forbidding us to jump on the bed. The more we beg them
for what we want, the more they laugh.
|Laughing together is a powerful way of connecting
with each other. Children delight in silliness and often use it to
try to connect when they need a refill. Instead of thwarting
silliness, we can initiate it, or at least join in. We can usually
turn the tide of a power struggle by getting silly instead of
bossy. When children are giggling over our silliness, they are
also reconnecting and getting the refill they were requesting
through the power-struggle behavior.
While the quality of the time we spend with children
cannot replace the quantity of time children need with us,
we increase the quality of connection when we actively engage with
children. Filling children's love cup with the kind of eye
contact, physical touch, laughter, and connection that occurs
during play makes play the "high-test" emotional fuel.
Filling the Love Cup with One-On-One Connection Time
We spend high quality time with children when we play together
on a family outing. One-on-one connection time is different from
high-quality time. Connection time is time spent connecting
one-on-one and is essential to maintaining connection in any close
relationship. Just as couples need alone-together time to maintain
their connection, children need one-on-one time with the people
A weekly one-on-one date provides connection time to build a
strong bond. One mother shared that she turns the weekly grocery
shopping into one-on-one time by rotating whose turn it is each
week to help her shop and stopping for a special treat on the way
home. One dad shared that he spends one-on-one time with his
children by taking turns taking his children on a date to "go
out for coffee."
How we spend one-on-one connection time with each child depends
on the child's age and interests. The more time we spend with a
child, the more we know the child. The more we know a child, the
better we become at spending connection time in a way that fills
her cup. One-on-one time may take many different forms as long as
it is time spent together that is fun and fills the child's love
cup with the feelings of being noticed, accepted, and loved.
Many children refer to one-on-one time as "special
time." While one-on-one time is special because it makes
children feel special, it is not an extra privilege to be given as
a reward for "good" behavior or to be withdrawn for
unacceptable behavior. Children need connection time as much as
they need to eat and sleep.
Making the commitment to spend one-on-one connection time is an
investment in your relationship with your child.
Children love it when we give their "special" time a
special name. Your child's name is special. My granddaughter and I
call our one-on-one special time "Maggie time." Giving
connection time a name gives children a new way to request
connection. Instead of communicating their need for connection
through their behavior, they can "use their words."
Connection Parenting Principles:
- We meet children's emotional needs best when we listen
enough to keep their hurts cup empty and connect enough to
keep their love cup full.
- Children who feel connected are happier, healthier, more
loving, and more cooperative.
- Uncooperative behavior is often a communication of the
unmet need for connection.
- The level of cooperation parents get from their children
is usually equal to the level of connection children feel
with their parents.
- Spending one-on-one time with our children does not take
- It takes the same amount of time and attention to meet
children's emotional needs as it does to deal with behaviors
caused by their unmet emotional needs.
- Either we spend time meeting children's emotional needs by
filling their love cup or we will spend time dealing with
behaviors caused by their unmet needs. Either way we spend
Excerpted with permission from
Chapter 4 of Pam Leo's book Connection Parenting: Parenting Through Connection instead
of Coercion, Through Love instead of Fear (Wyatt-Mackenzie
Publishing, Second Edition, 2007).
Pam is the Connection Parenting instructor for the Academy for Coaching
Parents, International. Pam has been writing the Empowered Parents column
for the Parent & Family paper in Maine for the last ten years. For more
information, articles and reprint permissions, visit Connection Parenting.
© 2005, 2007 Pam Leo.