Humans are born ready to love and to be loved. All parents recognize the adoration reserved especially for parents: the small arms reaching up, the joy of infant and parent in their cocoon of mutual delight. Babies expect to be cherished.
This cherishing, this affirmation of the infant from head to toe, teaches the baby who he is.
In interaction with the parents, the baby learns “Yes, these are my toes, how good they feel when Dad kisses them!” and “Mom makes that happy noise when I smile at her!” The baby also learns “Mom and Dad love to bathe me, to nurse me, to care for me: I am worth taking care of. I am lovable.”
Cherishing our babies is natural, if we listen to our instincts. It is our secret weapon, the nourishment that helps them grow inside, the source of self esteem, the foundation on which their ability to love and be loved rests.
This expectation of being loved is what allows our children to learn so quickly, to risk bumps and scrapes and hurt feelings: the security of knowing that someone who adores them is watching out for them, supporting their growth.
Cherishment is the security of unconditional love.
For the parent, cherishing is reveling in being this baby’s parent, being grateful even in the middle of diapers and sleeplessness and colic that this baby was sent to these arms.
But, if we have not been cherished ourselves, cherishing can be challenging.
When we have been frustrated in our attempts to love and be loved, we may find it difficult to revel in our new baby. We may find ourselves annoyed rather than delighted by her need for our attention, angry rather than sympathetic when he howls. We may avert our eyes from her adoring gaze. We may become uncomfortable when engaged in reciprocal play with our baby and interrupt it without really noticing what we are doing, or even our discomfort.
Often, parents who have not been cherished themselves are envious of the attention the baby receives from others. These parents may insist that the baby adapt to their needs, by, for instance, refusing to adequately babyproof and then becoming angry when the baby persistently attempts to explore the DVD player or the stack of magazines.
And for the baby, what happens when this need to cherish and be cherished is frustrated? Frustration, of course, is anger. Lack of being cherished creates an angry child.
Some parents are conditionally accepting. They might adore the baby, for instance, but find it difficult to deal with her when she’s angry. What happens? The baby simply rejects the parts of herself that haven’t been accepted. The ability to love herself is compromised, shadowed with self hatred; she is not, after all, good enough to evoke what she needs and wants most: cherishing. As she rejects parts of herself, her emotional growth is compromised. (See the Attachment Research for more about the Resistant-ambivalent response.)
The need for cherishing, like all survival needs, doesn’t vanish when thwarted. It goes deep underground. We defend ourselves against this dangerous need that would make us vulnerable; we ward it off with anger, which eventually turns into bitterness.
In extreme cases, the hope of being loved becomes too painful, and the child defends against it by consciously expecting rejection.
We all know these children, who become experts at soliciting dislike. The famous researcher Rene Spitz said it most succinctly: “Infants without love… Will end as adults full of hate.”
Luckily, virtually all of us get enough cherishment that we don’t end up as hateful adults. Few of us, though, get enough of this “soul food” that we don’t end up with a heart that is, at times, more hungry than we would like. That hunger, those unmet needs, are what drive all “bad behavior” on the part of our children.
Kids whose needs for cherishment are met become cooperative kids. Sure, they’ll have times when they’re overwhelmed by emotion, or have a hard time regulating their behavior. But these kids want to cooperate to please their parent.
Bottom line: Want to raise a happy, cooperative, responsible child? Cherish your baby.