Spirit or Form…Does It Matter Which Comes First?

By Shoshana Hayman, director of the Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting, http://lifeCenter.org.il

Shoshana Hayman“Say you’re sorry to your brother.”

“Say thank-you to Grandma.”

“Do your math homework now.”

“It’s time to practice the piano.”

Before we try to get a child to behave in a certain way or learn something, we have to ask ourselves if the child himself cares enough to want to fulfill our request or expectation:

  • Does the child actually feel sorry?
  • Does he truly feel thankful?
  • Is he curious and interested?
  • Does he have inner desire?

We can make (sometimes) a child say “sorry” or “thank you” or practice the piano or do his homework. But when we force a child, we are not really instilling within him something that is lasting. We are putting form before spirit. Before a child can learn form, he must have the spirit for this behavior to be true and long-lasting.

Origin of Spirit

Where does spirit come from? What makes a child truly care? There are three ingredients of mature caring:

  1. Right relationships — The child must be securely attached to his parent, in the dependent position. He must feel unconditional love and caring from his parent in order to be fully satiated in his need to be cared for, to matter to someone, to feel important in the eyes of someone. Only then can he feel caring toward others. You can compare this to food. If you were hungry and didn’t know where your next meal was coming from, you would not be inclined to invite others to your table. When a child’s need for unconditional caring is met, he can care for others.
  2. Emergent energy — This comes from the child himself and moves him to learn about what he likes, what interests him, what is important to him, what has meaning and value to him. He can venture forth into the world to discover what he cares about, only if his attachment base is secure and strong.
  3. Integrative thinking, the fruit of a nurtured spirit of caring — The ability to integrate conflicting feelings and thoughts does not even begin to develop until the child reaches five years old. This unfolding process is the root of true caring. True caring means that you remember you care when you are angry, frustrated, tired, or scared. Caring mixes together with other conflicting feelings and results in a tempered response in the child. Caring becomes part of a child’s nature when he can be angry at his brother but remember that he loves his brother and doesn’t want to hurt him. A child is truly a caring person when he doesn’t like the gift he received from his grandmother but will accept it graciously with a thank-you, because he doesn’t want to hurt his grandmother’s feelings; when he is frustrated by having too much math homework, but he does it anyway because he cares about passing the test.

When we put form before spirit, we can crush the spirit. Some of the ways we try to make children act in a caring way, such as rewarding them with prizes, actually create egocentricity in children because they are focused on acceptable behavior rather than on cultivating the desire to give. Ultimately this can create an “I don’t care! It doesn’t matter to me!” attitude.

Children are born with the potential to care deeply. It is up to us, the adults in their lives, to nurture this spirit before we try to add form.

3 thoughts on “Spirit or Form…Does It Matter Which Comes First?”

  1. So I agree with the spirit of what your are saying. I can see it very clearly with the “forced apologies” and rewards, etc. I am not so clear on the thank you. So when we do things for our children – like get them water, food, a toy, or someone gives them a gift, we should not ask them to say “thank you” I understand not forcing them to say it, but asking them to. It seems to blur the line between teaching basic courtesy. Any advice. Thanks

  2. I will ask my child to say “thank you” once, and if she doesn’t I don’t sweat it and don’t ask a second time. I think the best way to teach “thank you” and other common courtesies is to model the behavior. When your child gives you something, you say “thank you!”

  3. Disagree. It’s not shaming, it’s reminding. Kids are forgetful, they don’t remember to say please and thank you until you remind them of it about a billion times. It doesn’t make it any less heartfelt when they do say it, it just makes sure they remember to consider the nice things done for them. Of course, this is assuming that we’re talking about a simple “What do you say?” or “Tell Grandma thank you” rather than something along the lines of “How can you be so thoughtless?” or “How many times do I have to tell you to say please?” or the flippant remarks to other in front of the child a la “He never says thank you” or “That’s my rude child.”
    Also, we can’t leave off homework or piano practice until the kid wants to or feels like doing it. Obligations are not always fun, and by teaching our children that everything should be fun we put them at a disadvantage for their later years. Sometimes you just have to slog through something and the fun comes later. Sometimes you have to put in the effort until the sense of accomplishment makes it fun. Sometimes you just have to get your obligations out of the way so you can move on to something better. But the homework has to get done, fun or not.

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