From the very beginning, the kind of parenting children receive influences their development in many areas throughout life. One of the most important things that all children need from their parents is feeling they’re loved.
Love and limits
Once babies are developing into toddlers, they also need clear and realistic limits and expectations around their behaviour. This combination of love and limits is called ‘authoritative’ parenting (also known as ‘backbone’ or ‘tree’ parenting — see the SKIP booklet Thinking about parenting (external link) ). You might also want to watch this clip on the Raising Children in NZ website about being the parent you want to be. (external link)
Both love and limits are important. The love and warmth aspect is explained below, and there’s a separate topic on Limits and boundaries.
Love and warmth
Most adults realise that babies depend on them to meet their physical needs, such as being fed, and kept warm and clean. It’s just as important that they understand that babies are completely reliant on parents to meet their emotional needs too.1
‘Babies whose parents spend time with them, try to figure out what they need, and are usually quick to respond are more likely to grow up physically and mentally healthy and be better able to learn at school’.2
When parents provide warm, loving relationships, other aspects of parenting are likely to go better. It’s the foundation for everything else that parents do, without which things like limit setting won’t work well.
What does love look like?
‘Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one. First, last and always.’3
A parent’s love needs to be unconditional, and doesn’t depend upon the child behaving or achieving in certain ways. It’s about the child’s needs, not the parent’s.4 Parents’ needs are very important too — however, it’s not their child’s job to meet them. When parents can see the world from their child’s point of view,5 their child is more likely to feel loved. This means parents understanding the actual needs of their particular child, not their ideas of what a child might need.6
Parents usually have loving feelings towards their child — however, it’s the child’s sense of feeling loved that’s important for their development. This ‘feeling loved’ comes about through the many interactions parent and child have over time. Every bath, every nappy change, and every cuddle are opportunities to help a child feel loved.
Warm, gentle physical contact such as hugging, rocking and holding are an important part of baby’s needs.7 Some people think that what matters most for children are shorter periods of ‘quality time’ with their parents. In fact, for children to thrive, both the quality and quantity of parental time and attention are important.8 When it comes to quality, it’s the quality of the interaction between parent and child that’s most important, not the type of activity they’re doing.
In other words, it doesn’t have to be a ‘special’ outing or activity, but a time when the parent’s attention is fully with the child, listening to them, having fun together. Examples include:
- Mum reading a bedtime story, having a cuddle with her child and talking about the day
- Dad looking into his baby’s eyes, smiling and chatting, whilst gently washing his baby in the bath.
It helps if phones and other electronic devices are far enough away so they don’t distract parents at these special times.
Effects of love and warmth
The quality of a child’s early caregiving, and the attachment relationships they have with their parents, help them to achieve better at school.9 One study found that children whose mothers were more affectionate with them when they were a few months old were more resilient to life’s difficulties and had better mental health in adulthood.10
The relationships young children have with their parents and whānau affect most aspects of their development. These include emotional, social and intellectual development, learning and academic achievement, mental health, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and the ability to control aggression.11 Secure attachment also improves a child’s resilience to later stress.12
Babies are very dependent upon their parents. If they know their parents will be there when they need them, they are likely to develop a sense of security. This in turn allows the child to explore the world,13 which is important for their learning.
Early European settlers noticed the loving care that Māori parents and other adults gave children and babies. They also noted the bravery and confidence this care gave the children.14
What can get in the way?
How parents think and feel about their own attachment experiences has a strong influence on their ability to meet their baby’s needs.15 It’s not just what happened to parents that’s important, but how they have made sense of it that matters the most.16
Sometimes parents can benefit from professional help in making sense of their own history, so they can avoid passing on less helpful aspects of it to their baby (see SKIP’s Conscious parenting — Module one.) (external link)
Some beliefs about babies and parenting can be unhelpful — for example, the myth that says you can ‘spoil’ a baby by showing them too much affection, and they’re better off ‘toughening up’ so they can cope with life.
Research indicates that in fact, the opposite is true. Studies with animals have found that rat pups who had lots of nurturing from their mothers were more resilient to stress, and more interested in exploring new environments.17
Parents usually have hopes and dreams for their child’s future. These might include:
- getting on well with others and having friends
- doing well at school
- staying out of trouble
- being able to cope with life’s challenges
- being mentally and physically healthy
- being a good parent themselves.
All of these goals are more likely to be achieved by children who experience lots of love and warmth right from the start.
- Brainwave Trust: Rethinking the nappy
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
- Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (2nd ed.). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
- Brainwave Trust Aotearoa. (2015). The early years last forever. Retrieved from http://www.brainwave.org.nz/what-we-do/early-years-about/
- Bronfenbrenner, cited by National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships: Working paper 1. (p.1.) Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2004/04/Young-Children-Develop-in-an-Environment-of-Relationships.pdf (external link)
- Sunderland, M. (2006). The science of parenting. London, England: DK Publishing.
- Parsons, C. E., Young, K. S., Murray, L., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2010). The functional neuroanatomy of the evolving parent–infant relationship. Progress in Neurobiology, 91, 220–241. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2010.03.001
- Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. London, England: Routledge.
- Perry, B. D. (2004).Neglect: How poverty of experience disrupts development. Retrieved from Child Trauma http://www.brainwave.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/MindBrain.pdf
- Bowlby, cited by Schore, A. N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment and Human Development, 2(1), 23–47.
- Moss, E., St-Laurent, D., Dubois-Comtois, K., & Cyr, C. (2005). Quality of attachment at school age. In K. A. Kerns & R. A. Richardson (Eds.), Attachment in middle childhood (pp. 189–211). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
- Maselko, J., Kubzansky, L., Lipsitt, L., & Buka, S. L. (2011). Mother’s affection at 8 months predicts emotional distress in adulthood. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 65, 621–625.
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships: Working paper 1. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2004/04/Young-Children-Develop-in-an-Environment-of-Relationships.pdf (external link)
- Greenspan (1981), cited by Schore, A. N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment and Human Development, 2(1), 23–47.
- Sroufe (2005), cited by Parsons, C. E., Young, K. S., Murray, L., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2010). The functional neuroanatomy of the evolving parent–infant relationship. Progress in Neurobiology, 91, 220–241. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2010.03.001
- Jenkins, K., & Harte, H. M. (2011). Traditional Maori parenting: An historical review of literature of traditional Maori child rearing practices in pre-European times. Auckland, New Zealand: Te Kahui Mana Ririki. Retrieved from http://www.whakawhetu.co.nz/sites/default/files/TraditionalMaoriParenting.pdf (external link)
- Steele, H. (2013). Perspective 5: Earliest experiences and attachment processes. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. N. Schore, & T. R. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy (pp. 421–426). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Kaffman & Meaney (2007), cited by Leckman, J. F., & Mayes, L. C. (2007). Nurturing resilient children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(3/4), 221–223.