An Imprinting of Love: How to Be Gentle With Your Kids and Yourself
I was nine when we moved from our small New England town to the suburban sprawl of Colorado Springs. Everything was bigger there. The houses, the churches, the mountains . . . somehow even God was larger, more real, more present.
Christianity had been an important part of our family culture before, but now it took center stage. Our social lives oscillated between attending a mega church (and all of the classes, groups, dinners and activities that came with it) and hanging out at the Focus On The Family complex which was conveniently just down the street.
My brothers and I spent countless Saturdays exploring in the Adventures In Odyssey wonderland while my parents steeped themselves in Dobson’s philosophy. His empire pumped out radio programs, magazines, and parenting books that explained how our “sin natures” caused us to misbehave and directed parents to set firm boundaries via physical punishment and authoritarian shaming to help children understand the dire consequences of their sins.
I’ve been trying to shake off the effects of this toxic approach for years. Day by day, and with lots of therapy and support, I’m slowly finding my footing. Give me a decent night of sleep on an average Tuesday and I can be a pretty good daytime parent. I can redirect, guide emotional regulation, plan transitions, and set firm-but-shame-free boundaries with relative ease. But evening zen continues to elude me. By 6pm I am out of ideas and good intentions. My four year olds are being so FOUR and everything becomes a battle I don’t have the energy to fight.
My nostrils flare as I dig deep to summon elusive parental wisdom, some tip or trick to answer the question: How do I transform my wild children into willing cherubs, cozy and unconscious in their beds?
But my fundamentalist elders are Threats, Violence, and Shame. And their influence is imprinted deep inside me. This trio whispers reminders of my childhood, memories of being spanked for far less than my unruly children are now doing. These flashbacks are violent and awful—my brothers and I bent over the end of our parents bed, pants pulled down, Dad’s leather belt slapped across our bottoms.
I ache for those children. At the same time, I fantasize about the power my parents wielded. These old stories of violence tempt me with the promises of the gods—if only I would put my children in their proper place, I would be free of their annoying behavior and squabbles. I would be respected. I would have control.
The other night our bedtime routine stalled right on cue, my daughter flinging herself to the floor at the first mention of pajamas. “It’s impossible!,” she howled. I offered to help. She continued to scream. I stood up and calmly told her I would give her a few minutes, trying not to skip on my way out the door.
I’m crushing this, I thought. Mother of the year. I didn’t overreact, I’m chill, no need to panic, we can take this one step at a time—but just then a board book goes sailing through her doorway and hits the wall across the hall with a dull thud. What the —My eyebrows shoot up, my pulse quickening. By the time the third book was in flight I was transformed—red faced and bellowing as I stormed back down the hall:
“STOP THAT RIGHT NOW! This is RIDICULOUS. They’re just pajamas!” *woosh* *thud*
“I. JUST. TOLD. YOU. TO. STOP! Why are you deliberately disobeying me? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?”
She whipped her head around to look at me, anger in her eyes.
“Mama! What is wrong with YOU! Why are you yelling at me? I told you I was having a hard time with my BIG FEELINGS! Yelling at me doesn’t help AT ALL!!”
And there it is. My rush of adrenaline stopped cold by the humanizing wisdom of this tiny person. The impossibly beautiful, redemptive side of imprinting. My daughter has somehow managed to absorb enough of my hopeful values that even when I fail to live up to them, she reminds me of who I want to be. Of who I am helping her to become. There are so many well-documented reasons to abandon authoritarian parenting, spanking, and shame-based discipline, but this is the most powerful proof I’ll ever encounter: a child speaks hope to her parents.
Even in our most feeble efforts our children experience what many of us can only dream of: the confidence from growing up in a home where humility, curiosity, and love abound. This is the gift of deconstruction: the breaking down and clearing out makes way for new growth in a rich, fertile soil.
As Cindy Wang Brandt so beautifully writes in her book, Parenting Forward:
“We sow a foundation of love, connection, and justice toward children so that in their tender growing up years they can put down deep roots of physical security, emotional self-identity, and spiritual grounding to sustain a lifetime of living good and living well.”
Free from shame, our children bloom a vibrant joy that radiates life into the depths of our souls—an imprinting of love.
The task of our own healing from trauma cannot be taken lightly. It is a massive undertaking and an intensely nonlinear path. So let’s be gentle with ourselves. Let’s ask for help and take it one day at a time. Let’s reject the notion that perfection is possible—from children or parents. Let’s meditate on the gift of radical acceptance and love. We can forgive ourselves for all that we cannot do or undo. We can live freely in each moment, honoring the journey we have been walking for many years, holding space for the children following, accompanying, and even leading us forward.
Julianne Van’t Land
Julianne Vantland is a social worker turned freelance copywriter and blogger who explores the intersection of faith deconstruction, parenthood, mental health, and embodiment. She is a voracious reader and recovering perfectionist who feels most at home in the kitchen and loves the way food gathers friends around her kitchen table. Julianne lives with her husband Drew and five year old twins Rowan and Evelyn in beautiful Lexington, KY. Her writing can be found at juliannevantland.com.