LOVE IS THE KEY TO A HAPPY CHILD
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. ~ I Corinthians 13:13
I Corinthians 13:13 has always been my favorite Bible verse. Even as a child, I felt an incredible power that I didn’t fully understand any time and every time I heard it or read it. It seemed to whisper and call to me to understand not just the words but the whole of the message that was held within those words.
I am now an adult, and God has led me to become a licensed professional counselor and a registered play therapist. I can tell you that my experience as a psychotherapist has led me to believe that the message of I Corinthians 13:13 is the pathway to miraculous healing of mind, body, and spirit. In fact, without love, a child will never achieve wellness of body, emotions, livelihood, intellect, environment, family/friends, or spirit/soul…that which enables him/her to be marvelously integrated and whole. From the very beginning, love is the key to a child’s growing and thriving…..to becoming all that God intended.
God created us to love and to be connected to one another in meaningful relationships. Our brains are literally “wired” for this. Humankind would not have endured and cannot continue without the capacity to form rewarding, nurturing, and enduring relationships. We survive because we can love. And we love because we can empathize – that is, stand in another’s shoes and care about what it feels like to be there. (Szalavitz, 2010) However, at birth, a child is neither fully loving nor empathetic. The gifts of our biology are a potential, not a guarantee. Babies don’t learn to care and connect without specific early experiences.
It all starts with the face. From the first moments of life, we have repeated and extensive exposure to faces. Newborns find the human face interesting, actually preferable to other visual stimuli, and can quickly recognize their mother’s face on the basis of visual cues alone. During bottle feeding or nursing, a mother and her baby (or a bottle-feeding father and his baby) spend hours gazing into one another’s eyes, and the “complex dance of the relationship” begins. It is through this contact that they synchronize with each other, the mirror neuron producing imitation that both the mom and the baby then elaborate as they react to each other playfully. (See note below). Normally, this interaction is rhythmic and flexible. Mom looks at baby, looks away, and moments later, reconnects with her gaze. Baby looks at mom, hears a noise and turns, comes back. But little breaks are essential – they are basically small experiences of minor stress and distancing, quickly ended by reconnection. The stress response systems are shaped by these little breaks; the child ultimately learning to manage small repeated doses of stress activation without overreacting. Normal parent/child interactions provide these small, manageable doses of stress in a pattern that creates resilience. And, for all of this, the face is an essential source of information. (Szalavitz, 2010)
Though this “dance” between Mom and Baby seemed to be a simple act of loving playfulness, there were several very complex foundational events occurring:
- Baby was copying, or mirroring, Mom’s facial expressions. This ability is one of the earliest precursors to empathy;
- Mom and Baby were bonding on a more profound level as a result of reciprocal pleasure and safety;
- Baby is developing a sense of the world through these interactions with Mom. Baby’s brain is changing. These experiences literally serve as a template which shapes future responses to human contact…..to whether the world is seen as a safe and welcoming place or as a dangerous and sad place. Albert Einstein once said that the most fundamental and major decision that you have to make it this: Do I live in a friendly or a hostile universe. These mirroring experiences are literally creating the definition;
- When Mom and Baby exchanged smiles, connections were made. Smiling produced a small neurochemical “reward”.
- The interaction served as “exercise” for the stress response systems. This allows the baby to strengthen the stress response systems and to develop healthy self-regulation and ultimately resilience, critical components of a successful and fulfilling life;
- Mom’s holding, cuddling, soothing, and touching Baby develop connections that are critical to Baby’s health. These nurturing actions are the difference between life and death. An infant must experience the physical reality of the caregiver’s love. Without these concrete proofs of that love, the body senses that there is very little chance for survival and shuts down. This is known as “failure to thrive”.
Writing this chapter, and reading what I just wrote, reminds me of how I felt when I held each of my babies in my arms. I sat and held each one of them for hours just because of the love I felt…..the depth and complexity of which filled me with a wonder I had never known before. I had no idea I was giving each of them the best chance to be a whole, fully integrated human being; I was just loving them and thanking God for the miracles He had given me.
Who knew that love was so powerful, such a critical component of wellness and harmony of mind, body, and spirit? God did and does. He created us to love and to be loved. He created us to speak and act in love. He created us to treat one another as we would like to be treated. He gave each of us a body that knows, beneath the level of conscious awareness, what is good for it and what is bad for it. The discipline of kinesiology has even provided a way for us to verify that concept through muscle testing. Our systems remain strong when exposed to a healthy person, place, or thing, and our systems weaken when exposed to an unhealthy person, place, or thing. There is an old nursery rhyme that declares
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but
Words will never hurt me.
I find that rhyme to be woefully inaccurate. Words can wound. We weren’t created to do harm in any manner. Scientific studies have provided evidence that our choices matter. Our choices “teach” our system to focus on the positive or on the negative aspect of being, to be happy or to be sad, to be kind or to be cruel, to be healthy or to be sick (and we now know, due to mirror neurons, that our choices are effecting others). Yes, I said our choices teach our systems to be healthy or to be sick. University of Utah researchers investigated effects of 6-minute conversations between married couples. These conversations centered on sensitive subjects such as money. The women who heard or made hostile comments were 30% more likely than other women to have hardened arteries. For men, hearing or saying controlling phrases carried the same risk. Research at Ohio State University indicated that harsh exchanges between spouses lowered immunity enough to slow wound healing by at least one day.
My work as a play therapist gives me ample evidence that children are certainly effected by harsh acts and words. I work with children as young as one year of age in my therapeutic playroom. Some have been brutalized in ways I could have never believed humanly possible until I saw their broken bodies, their broken hearts, and their wounded souls. It is possible to break children beyond their ability to heal…..to wound them so profoundly that they can no longer be the people God created them to be. (Tears are running down my checks as I type this and remember……) However, with the most infinitesimally small sliver of chances, a child will find her way back. She will fight for a chance to be whole, and she will fight with every ounce of strength and will for that chance. Miraculously, it only takes one person, one moment in time to make a difference. A child hearing “you matter”, “I care”, “I believe in you” can heal and go on to have a happy life, filled with healthy loving relationships. I’ve seen it; I see it every day. God is love, and that is the miracle.
Each and every child is a miracle. We, as therapists, have the ability to be used by God as an instrument for healing for those who are wounded or as an instrument of wisdom for those who have wandered unto dangerous ground. It is often as simple as offering unconditional positive regard and holding the therapeutic space so that person can find the strength and courage to heal.
You, as parents, can give your child the gift that is wanted above all others, the gift that is desperately needed by each and every child. You can give them you and your time. Every child wants to be loved. Every child wants to be seen. Every child wants to be heard. Choosing to spend twenty minutes coloring with your child can change your relationship forever. In those moments, you have given your child the most important messages she or he will ever hear:
- I “see” you;
- I love you;
- I am here, and I understand;
- You are so valuable and important to me that I am choosing to spend my time with you.
You have just made a profound contribution to your child’s being able to choose to have a healthy body and emotions, to be successful in school and all future endeavors, to develop and honor a healthy mind, to live in harmony with this earth that God created and to be a good steward of that gift, to connect with each and every child of God in a loving and honoring manner, and to develop and continually grow a loving and worshipping relationship with an ever-present, living, and loving Creator.
We have come full circle with this study of the power of love on the development and fulfillment of a human life. In closing, I offer this:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God,
and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
He who does not love does not know God,
for God is love.
~ 1 John 4 7-8 NKJ
AND THAT IS THE MIRACLE THAT MAKES US WHOLE
*Note: First discovered in the early 1990s, mirror neurons are a type of brain cell which responds equally to our performing an action or our watching another perform that same action. The neuroscientist who discovered these neurons, Giacomo Rizzolatti, M.D., believes this could help explain how and why we “read” other people’s minds and feel empathy for them. (Waterman, October, 2005, Volume 36, No. 9).
Szalavitz, M. a. (2010). Born For Love. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Waterman, L. (October, 2005, Volume 36, No. 9). “The Mind’s Mirror”. American Psychological Association, 48.