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Connecting Through Filling the Love Cup

"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 lifestyle.

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 wellbeing.

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 do.

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 needs.

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 children.

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 requesting connection.

"The single most important skill parents can acquire is playing." - Lawrence J. Cohen, author, Playful Parenting

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 be.

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 learned."

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 they love.

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.

Special Time

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Children who feel connected are happier, healthier, more loving, and more cooperative.
  3. Uncooperative behavior is often a communication of the unmet need for connection.
  4. The level of cooperation parents get from their children is usually equal to the level of connection children feel with their parents.
  5. Spending one-on-one time with our children does not take "extra" time.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 the time.

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.