I recently read How to Really Love Your Child by Dr. Ross Campbell. (Campbell is also the co-author of The Five Love Languages of Children) The principles and practical application of his ideas are incredibly useful. This book is easily my favorite book I've read this year, and it's almost certainly the best parenting book I've ever read. This post will provide a general summary of the ideas Campbell presents in the book How to Really Love Your Child. But please, I exhort you to read the book for yourself!
Campbell begins by making the argument that above all else, children need to feel unconditionally loved by their parents. (It's important to note that Campbell does acknowledge that no parent is perfect and therefore cannot love unconditionally at all times. We all fall short in this way, at various points and for various reasons.) That being said, he states, "Most parents have a feeling of love toward their children and assume that they convey this love to a child. This is the greatest error today. Most parents are not transmitting their heartfelt love to their children, and the reason is that they do not know how. Consequently, many children do not feel genuinely, unconditionally loved and accepted" (Campbell, 2015, p. 22). In subsequent chapters, Campbell proceeds to elaborate on four major areas in which we as parents can show love to our children. These four critical areas include: eye contact, physical contact, focused attention, and discipline.
The idea of eye contact might seem basic - maybe even trite, yet it's power is entirely underestimated; especially in today's fast-paced world where distractions abound, and every minute a new notification is vying for our attention. This chapter offers quite a bit of research on how important eye contact is biologically for all humans, but in particular, for infants and children.
Additionally, parents are cautioned not to give eye contact only when correcting or reprimanding. He states, "It's easy for the parents to develop the terrible habit of using eye contact primarily when they want to make a strong point to a child, especially a negative one...We may do this mainly to give instructions or for reprimanding and criticizing. This is a disastrous mistake" (Campbell, 2015, p. 46). What are your habits around eye contact? Are you a guilty of trying to multitask instead of stopping your task to provide intentional eye contact with your child? Take note of your habits around eye contact over the next few days and try to find ways you can be more intentional in providing sustained, kind, loving eye contact when interacting with your kids throughout the day.
Campbell plainly states, "We need to incorporate physical and eye contact in all of our everyday dealings with children. This contact should be natural and comfortable rather than shadowy or overdone... Appropriate and frequent eye and physical contact are two of the most precious gifts we can give our children" (Campbell 2015, p. 58). He continues to describe how while the need for physical contact never goes away, but it does look different depending on the sex and age of your child. He provides a variety of appropriate ways to give physical contact with children at their various ages of development that are helpful in demonstrating a parent's love.
The reason Campbell starts with such basic (yet widely overlooked) ways to demonstrate love, he claims, is because they are what provide a solid foundation where children feel unconditionally loved, which ultimately allows them to be more responsive to any discipline. "Again, the basic problem is not that we are unaware that we must convey our love to our children before anything else: before teaching, before guidance, before example, before discipline. Unconditional love must be the primary relationship with the child, or everything else is unpredictable, especially their attitudes and behavior" (Campbell 2015, p. 67). He makes the point that parents often make the mistake of jumping straight to discipline for a child's behavior or attitude before trying to fix the issue with love - either through eye and physical contact or focused attention.
The author describes focused attention as, "giving a child full, undivided attention in such a way that the child feels without a doubt completely loved; that the child is valuable enough in his or her own right to warrant parents' undistracted watchfulness, appreciation and uncompromising regard" (Campbell 2015, p. 69). He goes on to describe why giving focused attention is the most powerful way to convey to our children that they are universally loved; loved more than our jobs, our domestic to-do lists, our hobbies, and certainly more than our smart phones!
He tells the story of father who spent the day fishing with his son. The father deemed the day a waste; in his diary, he even he lamented that his son seemed disinterested. Some time later, a historian found these notes and compared it against the son's journal entry for that same day. The son described it as a very special moment that was deeply meaningful. The reality is that we have no idea the type of impact a specific moment of focused attention might have on the life of a child. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity because we are "too busy" working or letting something less valuable hold our attention.
Focused attention is hard because it requires sacrifice. The author describes it this way: "Focused attention is time consuming, difficult to do consistently, and many time burdensome to already exhausted parents. But focused attention is the most powerful means of keeping a child's emotional tank full and investing in the child future" (Campbell, 2015, p. 82). And yet, it is absolutely essential that we make it happen because, "focused attention is not something that is nice to give children only if time permits; it is a critical need each child has" (Campbell 2015, p. 75).
Personally, one of the most profound points in the book was when the author explains how many parents mistakenly understand discipline to be synonymous with punishment (e.g., spanking, being sent to a bedroom, etc.). Campbell (2015) states, "Discipline is training the child in the way he should go. Punishment is only one part of this, and the less the better" (p. 116).
A wise woman once shared an analogy with me regarding discipline. Imagine you're building a house from the ground up and you open your tool box and the only thing you find is a hammer. Obviously there's no way to build an adequate house with only a hammer. You need a myriad of specialized tools to build a home properly. And doesn't it stand to reason that the child rearing - the caring for and discipling of an eternal soul, is infinitely more complex than building a house?
So why do we fall into the trap of believing that the only way to ensure obedience or guide a child's behavior is through punishment (corporal or otherwise)? We need more tools. The author shares some of the other ways we discipline our children, including: guidance by example, modeling, verbal instruction, written requests, teaching, etc. Punishment is only a small part of discipline.
A longer excerpt from the book states, "Too many today still call for children to be punished, calling it discipline, and recommending the harshest, most extreme form of human treatment. Most perplexing of all, many advocates refer to this as a biblical approach. They quote three verses from the book of Proverbs (13:24, 23:13, 29:15) to justify beating a child. They neglect to mention the hundreds of Scripture verses dealing with love, compassion, sensitivity, understanding, forgiveness, nurturing, guidance, kindness, affection, and giving...Proponents of corporal punishment seem to have forgotten that the shepherd's rod referred to in Scripture was used almost exclusively for guiding the sheep, not beating them. The shepherds would gently steer the sheep, especially the lambs, by simply holding the rod to block them from going in the wrong direction and then nudge them toward the right direction" (Campbell 2015, p. 116).
However, all of that to say, the author is very clear that in order for any form of discipline to be effective, we first need to make sure that our children's emotional tanks are full and they are feeling unconditionally loved. He states, "We should always begin by asking ourselves, 'What does this child need?' Then we can proceed logically from there. Only then can we take care of the misbehavior, give what the child needs, and permit the child to feel genuinely loved" (Campbell 2015, p. 127).
That is not to say that we are permissive, or misbehavior should be allowed. On the contrary, Campbell argues the exact opposite. He warns, "Misbehavior should not be condoned," and then cautions, "but if it is dealt with in an inappropriate way, that is, too harshly or too permissively, you're going to have problems with that child. Yes, we must check misbehavior. We must not tolerate misconduct. But the first step is not punishment. Punishment is occasionally necessary, but because of it's negative effects from overuse, punishment should be used only as a last resort. It is far, far better to handle misbehavior positively, especially with genuine love and affection, than to punish a child, especially with corporal punishment" (Campbell 2015,p. 129).
In the end, it is clear that we need to be incredibly intentional in showing our children we love them unconditionally by consistently and purposefully giving warm, loving eye and physical contact as well as focused attention if we want our discipline strategy to be most effective. When it comes to discipline, we should use punishment only as an absolute last resort.
I highly recommend reading this book if you're a Christian parent looking for a practical, Biblical perspective on child rearing. There are two chapters in the book that are worth noting because the content was very valuable and practical, but we haven't the space in this post to go over them in-depth. The first is chapter 11, entitled "Discipline - Requests, Commands, Rewards, and Punishments" where the author describes when and how these types of discipline scenarios might be appropriately handled or applied when misbehavior is occurring despite efforts to ensure a child's emotional tank is full. And the last chapter of the book, entitled "Helping Your Child Spiritually" shares how our homes and love-relationship with the child impacts their perceptions and beliefs about God.
If you have already read (or end up reading) How to Really Love Your Child, let me know; I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Happy Reading :)
Campbell, R. (2015). How to Really Love Your Child. David C. Cook.