A large part of our role as parents entails forming the identity and character of our children by giving them the support and security they need. We do this largely by loving them—willing their good and expressing it in a way that they can understand—and affirming the goodness of their identity as children of the Father. (As I continue this reflection, though, I want to make clear that I’m writing as a father who is learning, while often failing, to show my children the love and affirmation they need and deserve.)
Reading Kent Haruf’s Benediction, a novel set in the plains of Colorado, drove this point home to me. The main character, known appropriately as “Dad” Lewis, had just affirmed and blessed a young girl visiting him on his deathbed. The incident sparked a conversation with his late middle-aged daughter, Lorraine:
Did you touch me like that when I was little?”
He stared at her for a long time. “I don’t think so.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I was too busy. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“No,” she said. “You weren’t.” She lifted his hand to her cheek now.
“Forgive me,” he whispered. “I missed a lot of things. I could of done better. I always loved you.”
“You never told me that when I was her age.”
“Can you forgive that too?”
“I want to tell you now,” he said.
She watched him, his watery eyes staring at her.
“I loved you, he whispered. I always did. I approved of you completely. I do today.”
She kissed his hand and put it back on his chest and leaned far over and kissed him on his cracked lips.
“Thank you, Daddy. I feel the same way. I hope you know that.”
A good friend told me that her Dad never told her that he loved her growing up and only said so recently now that she is middle aged. We can take words for granted, and of course they have to backed up by action, but we do need to tell our kids that we love them. It’s crucial for their identity and coming to know the love of God the Father.
It strikes me that the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a catechetical program for children, took this name due to the fact that young children gravitated to the story and image of Jesus as a shepherd. One of the developers of CGS, Sofia Cavalletti, describes the child’s response to the parable: “So the sheep are safe and peaceful with their Good Shepherd; they know there is someone to protect them even in danger” (The Religious Potential of the Child, 66). One girl further remarked, “the Good Shepherd is like my mother.” In the child’s mind the love and protection of the parent relates to their need to feel protection and love in their family and from God.
The Thomistic psychologist Conard Baars spent a lifetime pointing out what happens when children do not receive love and affirmation from their parents—they themselves become incapable to giving this love and affirmation to others. Baars speaks of how a child can “not come to feel his own goodness, worth and lovableness because those significant persons in his life were not present to him with the full attention of their whole being” (Feeling and Healing Your Emotions). Our love helps our children to feel that they are “good, worthwhile, and loveable.”
Genuine affirmation reaches into the core of the person so that they know they are worthy of receiving love. This is our job as parents and we can’t wait until it’s too late to let our kids know our love and to feel our affirmation. It’s crucial for their emotional and spiritual growth and, like Dad Lewis, it’s never too late to start.