Extravagant Love

Photo by petalouda62, via Flickr

“They say that during adolescence, the teenaged brain develops from back to front, saving the pre-frontal cortex, or ‘reasoning center’ of the brain, for last,” a friend of mine wrote recently. “I know this is true, because the same day Nate excelled on his algebra entrance exam, he decided it would be a good idea to swat a fly with my Kindle. (Crack.)”

After I stopped laughing, I found myself thinking about this a lot–most recently two nights ago, when I found Alex taking a break from sweeping the kitchen floor to stick the broom handle in the baby’s mouth. Christian’s mind went straight to the water softener salt, which he breaks up using that handle. My mind went straight to klutziness and a broom handle in my baby’s brain.

Sometimes I think it’s a miracle any of our kids survive babyhood.

All parents want their kids to grow up to make good decisions–not only in terms of practical judgments, but also moral and ethical dilemmas. We want to prepare them to resist peer pressure and be good, productive men and women. Of course, in my world all these things are wrapped up with faith.

There are so many ways in which we can screw up our kids’ vision of God. We can take a rigid view of religion, thinking our Biblical and/or theological expertise qualifies us to act as judge and jury on others. We can make religious items or concepts more important than God Himself. We can fall into the trap of thinking God looks exactly like us (i.e., conforming to our particular philosophy). We can also act as if religion should never challenge, only affirm–should never make us uncomfortable, never ask us to confront hard truths or make changes in ourselves.

We’re so good at making God impotent, putting Him in a box. Frankly, considering the prevalence of these versions of “Christianity,” it’s no wonder so many people decide religion is a bunch of hooey.

Every time I think I’ve about got this whole faith/life thing under control, something happens to make me realize I know even less than I did before I thought I had it figured out. So how can I ever feel confident that I’m actually teaching my kids what I want them to learn?

Obviously I can’t. There are no guarantees in life, and especially in parenting. But I read a column recently that really made an impression on me:

A study that followed 500 children from birth to mid-life and found that the levels of affection these children received by eight months of age predicted the level of development of what I am calling the “moral brain” in adulthood. When the children (now 30+ yo adults) were divided up according to the levels of affection they received in infancy/toddlerhood (e.g., neglected, normal, extravagant), only the 7% of children who received extravagant levels of affection (as opposed to 85% who received “normal” and the 6% who received “neglectful” levels of affection) demonstrated the greatest degree of those skills associated with good moral decision making.

Another study involving 100 children found that the kids who received the highest levels of affection at home developed much larger hippocampi, the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control and stress regulation, two other skills that have been directly associated with moral decision making.

The bottom line is that if parents want moral kids, we need to do much more than sheltering kids’ innocence and telling them the difference between right from wrong. Parents need to prepare their children’s brains for the work of moral decision making by rooting them in extravagant physical affection and generous displays of parental love.

Photo by kelvin255, via Flickr

Am I extravagant enough in my love? Certainly in babyhood, I’m constantly kissing, cuddling, tickling, chewing on and loving my kids. But beyond that age, what does extravagant love look like? How do you measure it in comparison to the times you lose your temper or get self-centered? How do you measure it, taking into consideration a child’s need for other languages of love?

The floor is open, folks. I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting to hear your thoughts.