“The capacity to be apologetic, and respond to the suffering of others, is really predicated on the quality of a child’s early relationships,” she had explained to me. “Those relationships create the foundation for empathy, which we so desperately need these days.”
That statement ricocheted deeply within my parental heart. At some subterranean level, we all must realize how our early relationships with our parents molded us into the people we have become – our brightest attributes along with our poorest characteristics. Those relationships, like most things in life, weren’t all good or all bad, all black or all white. They just were what they were, in their varying shades of grey.
Now I am a parent facing the realization that my daughters’ future capacity for compassion – not only towards others, but also and especially towards themselves – depends upon the quality of the relationship I have with them now. I’m not perfect, not capable of coloring my children’s future in only the most pristine of hues. Yet I want the best for them, like any parent, and so I aspire to paint a landscape for them that is more light than dark.
It isn’t a complex goal, but neither is it straightforward. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals. Most of what I know about childrearing comes from my own childhood and its experiences and relationships in their varying shades of grey.
“We used to believe babies were born blank slates… passive recipients to everything happening in their environments,” Sermeno said in our conversation. “But thanks to discoveries in brain science and our ability to look inside the brain, it’s really given us the ability to appreciate that babies are born wired to be in relationships. They are communicators, born asking adults, in essence, to engage with them.”
Engagement is a slippery thing. I engage with my kids literally every moment I’m with them, yet the quality of that engagement is often dubious. How many times a day do I, engrossed in some chore, feign interest when Elle tells me something I don’t even hear? How many times do I, attention glued to a computer screen or adult conversation, ignore Emme’s pleas to be held?
“Whether you grow up to be president, or whatever you do in life, all good things begin with a relationship. And for a parent, it’s learning to build those relationships – the relationships that bring out a child’s spirit,” Sermeno told me.
I’m beginning to see that my role, as a parent, isn’t black or white. I’m not Super Mom, nor do I need to be. What I need to be and do to create better relationships with my children isn’t earth-shattering. It’s probably pretty small, in fact. It’s walking through the door and feeling thrilled to see my messy-haired daughters, then taking the time to show them that joy they bring me.
It’s being present.
“All good things in life begin with a relationship – that’s the moral of the story,” Sermeno said. “It’s nurturing that thirst that children are born with to belong to someone, to something. To be in the world.”