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Mindful Parenting & Affection

The fourth of the five aspects of mindful loving is Affection. Relative to the other four aspects, Dave Richo's book doesn't go on very long in introducing this topic. The emphasis is simply on the explanation that we are talking about safe, non-exploitive physical contact when we talk about affection.

But I've been surprised as I've mulled over this for a couple of weeks to find how large this topic has grown for me. On one hand, it's pretty easy to segue from the focus on Appreciation to Affection, as there seems to be some natural overlap. But on the other hand, I do think that there is a very key element that Affection offers a growing child, or even a well-established adult. That element is a sense of belonging.

We may have great appreciation for lots of people, even people we don't know. Some of our most influential benefactors may be people that we have not met nor will ever meet. But at the personal level, we cannot honestly claim them in a sense of belonging. We may have great appreciation for the way their work in the world - their writing or music or service - has enriched our lives. But while we might write a fan letter with expressions of gratitude and appreciation, expressions of affection - were we to offer them - would not be received with the same type of openness or even taken very seriously. An expression of appreciation is a thank you, even when offered to a stranger. But expressions of affection offered to a stranger are not so much a thank you as a bid for more than he or she has already given of themselves.This is because expressions of affection are most appropriately given and received between people who belong to each other in some important personal way.

Affection between people also signals degree of belonging, not just the fact of belonging itself. People in support groups, for example, may offer a brief-but-warm hug that signals a valuable and appropriate sense of belonging to that group of people who are coming together to solve a similar problem. That level of affection, while relatively mild in intensity for many people, can be absolutely life-giving.

If that hug goes on for too long, though, one or the other person can start to feel unsafe. This is because the level of belonging we may experience in a support group is different in degree from the level of belonging that we experience in a family or deep friendship or a coupleship. If our expressions of affection don't match the level of belonging that we actually feel, that doesn't feel good.

We see this aspect of vetting degrees of involvement even in our relationship with pets. Even a very affectionate dog has to sniff out a new person for just a little bit before licking their hand. Although the testing is brief, there is some testing before belonging is granted. And for us to be willing to receive that affection from the dog or puppy, we also generally need some evidence that the animal is safe and tame.

Between people, genuine affection requires a sense of safety and permission before it can be truly an aspect of mindful loving. Even the youngest child needs the sense that they have permission to decline or wind down an expression of affection whenever he or she feels ready. This is why violations of a child's physical boundaries through physical or sexual abuse, or other types of objectification, are so confusing and so wounding.

For a child, it may be hard to put into words the difference between feeling enmeshed by another person who doesn't respect boundaries and feeling the genuine communication of warmth, respect, and filial communion (aka belonging) that can happen through physical contact. But just because the child may struggle to put that difference into words doesn't mean he can't feel that difference.

It's also important to mention that failing to offer safe and and warm physical contact is a violation of boundaries in the form of neglect. It is a failure to give the child the sense of belonging so needed for emotional development.

How and when warm contact is offered is moderated by our attention to what is needed and welcomed by our particular child at any particular time. Sometimes, for instance, parents may want to give a hug after announcing the consequences of negative behavior. This may be a case of a parent trying to make themselves feel better right away, because it is a rare child who wants a hug right after hearing that they are not going to be allowed to go hang out with their friends for a week. In fact, not many of us adults want a hug right after being confronted by a loved one about anything! But we all, children and adults alike, often welcome signs of affection later, when we come around to expressing remorse. Expressions of remorse and affection are all part of repairing ruptures in our sense of belonging.

Adolescents are often the butt of jokes as they begin to request - skillfully or unskillfully - to have boundaries around public displays of affection from their parents and siblings. This is not because those youngsters don't still need a sense of belonging to their families, but because it is appropriate that they begin to signal availability to belong to others in a larger world. If a family is unwilling or unable to respect those boundaries in public, or even shames a youngster about that very healthy wish, that child runs a very real risk of not being perceived by peers as truly available to be a part of their peer group.

One of the things our children need from us is modeling in how we show affection for ourselves. In our culture, self-aggrandizing is the near enemy of (and a poor substitute for) genuine self-regard. Relevant to our practice together as a group, one of the most accessible and valuable ways to practice affection for ourselves is meditation.

At the heart of affection, at the heart of belonging, is that sense of being with. To illustrate by contrast, the avoidance of meditation is, bottom line, a refusal to be with ourselves. And unless we train the mind, we often have understandable reason to be avoid sitting with ourselves. We can have legitimate dread for the ways in which we would unkindly regard ourselves or talk to ourselves in the wake of a difficult experience. But when we practice meditation, we practice in being a good friend to ourselves by the cultivation of thoughts that are more supportive.

Our children need to see that growing up - with all its inevitable losses and failures - doesn't have to be dreadful, and that it need not be lonely. Our children need to see that the experiences of loss or failure that are a part of every life do not have to be followed by hours, days or even years of self-recrimination, self-pity, and self-blame. They need to see that it's possible to continue to be a good friend to ourselves, even in times that we decide that there are things we want to do differently, so that we can experience happier results where possible.

We grow in our confidence that we can face whatever difficult things this life has to offer when we can be assured that we will be facing it with a friend. Mindfulness practice is largely about developing a friendship to ourselves and our experience. Through learning to be present in the moment, we become aware of a sense of affection available to us just in walking through the world, like the warmth of the sun or a cooling breeze on the cheek. Being fully here to receive these experiences of affection helps us access a sense of belonging to all of life, which we then can offer to our children in a more organic way.

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