My family of origin is more like mac and cheese than a filet mignon. Even though we aren’t fancy and sometimes leave something to be desired in terms of taste, there is a warmth and comfort to my family that has made me who I am today. I’ve recently been taking stock of all the gifts I have received from my parents, and I have been blessed. Don’t get me wrong, my parents have plenty of flaws, but they were able to raise passionate, thinking children, who have strong identities and deep wells of love and compassion. I recognize that they did this by parenting to our hearts. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about our actions but rather that they believed that our actions sprang from our hearts; if our actions were off, our hearts were off. They weren’t just trying to get us kids to do the right thing, they wanted our insides to match our outsides.
My parents achieved this “parenting to our hearts” in more ways than I can share here, but here are a few examples.
They valued truth. For instance, after sibling squabbles or parent-child conflicts, my mom would never force us to say we were sorry. Instead she would have us say, “I was wrong to do that.” If we wanted to say we were sorry, we could choose to say it on our own. This simple strategy allowed us to learn the mechanics of apologies while also learning that our words should match our hearts.
They valued commitment and resolution. My parents modeled talking through problems and working things out. We did not sweep disagreements under the rug, instead they were revisited and resolved. As strong, passionate people, there were (and still are) plenty of conflicts. But through the process of letting go of pride, resentment and bitterness, my siblings and I have gained the ability to see a problem from someone else’s perspective. This skill of resolving conflict has empowered each of us to deal with difficult situations—both personally and professionally—without fear or avoidance. This tactics has also taught us more about giving and receiving forgiveness.
They valued the “why.” My parents had rules that made sense, and they were happy to share the reasons behind their rules with us. We learned to listen to our parents because we trusted them, rather than just blindly following meaningless rules. This strategy also helped us learn to seek the why; to understand not just what we are doing but why we are doing it, teaching us how to live life with intention.
They valued all people. My parents modeled enjoyment and respect for all people. This respect and care for others was consistent throughout their lives. My mother would make us hush so we could hear what my youngest sister, just a toddler with few words, had to say. My father could talk to a homeless man or the mayor with the same amount of enjoyment, curiosity and respect. Their care for people of all types taught us to value others, and to expect to be valued by others.
They challenged us for the good of our hearts. I distinctly remember my dad reprimanding me for dodging a call from a needy friend, saying, “I don’t know if you know what it is like to be lonely, but it’s important that you are kind to lonely people. One day you might be lonely too.” Some parents think that love means always agreeing with you child or always correcting them. Instead of either, my parents looked to see what my heart needed. They did not always get it right, but I knew their correction was intended for my good. Additionally, they were willing to be respectfully challenged by us as well, and they were quick to say they were sorry if they were wrong. This taught us that being wrong does not make one a lesser person, it is a part of the human experience. When done in love, correction is a necessary part of relationships and growth.
They valued love over fear. My parents never pretended that they were the center of the universe. They taught us about a God, something bigger than us, which could give us an identity and security beyond the ebb and flow of life. This security was a foundation that kept love in focus rather than fear. They also taught us to listen to our gut. I remember my dad asking me, “What does your gut tell you?” His trust in my instincts allowed me to gain confidence in challenging situations. And these factors kept my parents from parenting in fear, giving me the gift of living a life driven by love instead of fear.
They valued grace and relationship over achievement and appearance. My parents have been loving and gracious throughout all of our achievements, struggles and failures. Their focus on relationship has played out in the ways they have encouraged our opinions, interests, values and instincts, even those quite different from their own. They have displayed curiosity and challenge towards us, showing us respect and strengthening our logic, but always with the whole person in mind. This has given us the confidence to be articulate thinkers, risk takers and students of life, but to know that at the end of the day we are valued for something much deeper than our talent, jobs or appearance; we are loved for our hearts.
While I am blessed to feel all the confidence and security that comes from being loved well by my parents, the greatest gift I have received is the ability to love others. We give love in measure to our understanding of love. The rivers of love run deep in my life and I have been blessed to share that water with others. My dad’s challenge to care for the lonely has never left me, instead becoming a call of my own heart, and that of my siblings. Fellow parents, no matter how imperfect you are or how much you struggle, never doubt the impact of parenting to your child’s heart; it will have ripple effects for generations to come.