For 25 years, until my children outgrew their father’s quality time around them, I assumed that paternal closeness was indeed the greatest gift I could bestow upon them, apart from unconditional love, which I am not discussing here at all, and which I do not deem as a gift to be discovered and given; it is obvious that we parents do not have to strive to have unconditional love for our offspring – it’s an instinctive thing. As for values and character development, these are naturally imbibed from the parents when the greatest gift is given to the children. What has to be learned by parents with growing children is a most precious understanding that has to be gifted to them by wizened and oftentimes remorseful older folks, for rarely can a young couple acquire such parenting perspective on their own until it is too late and the nest is already empty.
It is my hope that you as an earnest parent are privileged to still have your little kids whizzing past you, squeaking in delight on imaginary chases and causing the usual disquietude to your hour of relaxation after a hectic day’s work. Perhaps you are on a continual quest to find the elusive golden keys to bringing up your kids with a trifle less commotion, safely, wisely and above all, successfully – which is probably why you are reading this message. I have yet to see a 70-year-old father reading an article on parenting or a grandma earnestly referring Dr. Spock’s revered counsels.
The following story is about a father and a mother who gave the greatest gift to their children.
16-year-old Raju was one of the several undernourished children that the love union of his parents inadvertently brought forth into an impoverished community. Manual laborers by profession, Raju’s parents’ greatest goal on waking up each morning was to be able to feed their five children at least two meals that day. The struggle for daily sustenance was eased a bit when Raju was old enough to help his parents in their quarrying work.
Quarrying, as it’s done in underdeveloped lands, is more than just pickaxing away chunks off the solid rock face. It literally involves a dynamite of a risk. A hole about a foot deep is made on the rock face, raw gunpowder is packed into it, and one end of a gunpowder-laced cord inserted into the hole. The other end, a couple of meters away, is set sparkling with the glowing end of a beedi (the local cigarillo), upon which act the igniter shouts, ‘vediyehhhhhhh!’ (‘explosion coming!’), raising and extending his pitch on the final syllable. Anyone thereabouts then has around seven to ten seconds to duck for cover against the meteor of huge boulders descending on the rock face. Raju wasn’t nimble enough on one of those occasions.
As he lay in the government hospital, one arm almost severed and hanging on a tendon and his body a bloody mess of flesh, his father and mother rushed to his bedside. There wasn’t the usual laborers’ wail of distress from the parents on sighting their crumbled up child.
Instead, the father quietly took hold of his son’s hand of the remaining arm, while the mother seated herself at the foot of the bed, and began to gently stroke her son’s feet. This they continued to do until, after the usual long delay of public servants in such places, a surgeon was finally available to amputate the boy’s arm.
As he was trolleyed into the operation theater, the father kept holding his son’s hand, all the while showering him that reassuring look he had been silently effusing since he arrived at his son’s bedside. After the operation, and through the days of recuperation, the father’s and the mother’s mode of reaction to their son’s tragedy remained unchanged and unabated. The father held his son’s hand as often as he stood by his bedside, and the mother kept stroking her child’s feet as often as she sat on the edge of his bed, until the day they were able to limp him back home.
I have gone to some descriptive length in narrating this incident, but have done so with the intention of conveying an experience for which I still couldn’t figure a one-word expression. The Greek language, it seems, has a word that comes close to it. It’s usually spelled ‘agape’ (pronounced ‘ah-gah-pey’) in English. When translating ancient Greek manuscripts containing this word into the English language, the translators, for want of a better expression, settled for the incomplete sense in the word ‘love’, while acknowledging that it doesn’t convey the full intent of the Greek terminology. The closest I could manage in defining this gift is by the compounded term:
The greatest gift you can give your child is the abiding assurance deep within your child’s psyche of your undistractible attention and your unfailing presence in absolutely any situation in which your child might find himself.
Perhaps the shorter phrase ‘continuous lifelong bonding’ might suffice for the present purpose. It’s a bonding that never loses a shade of its warmth when a child is weaned off his mother’s breast milk. It’s a bonding that never loses its intimacy when a child grows too big to be kissed in front of his friends. And this bonding abides constant without a trace of diminution whether the child has done something terribly wrong or is suffering the deserved consequences of deliberate delinquency.
This was the gift that Raju could perceive his parents had been lavishing on him all along. Raju’s parents never had read a book on childrearing. Yet they were gifted with the most important truth in raising a child – something which eludes the expressive capability of many a PhD in child sychology. This is a gift all parents naturally have, but the tragedy is that their children don’t always discern it, because the parents do not realize they aren’t expressing it. On the contrary, many children feel a neglect of them by parents – a root cause for the growing number of runaway teenagers each year in the materially developed, but emotionally deprived, countries. It’s a basic cause for the growing number of children turning to drugs for a substitute assurance or for a temporary obliteration of the gnawing awareness within them of being deprived of their greatest emotional need – of knowing with absolute certainty that there are people who will love them and care for them no matter what.
As modern civilization keeps rushing forward to its ominous destination at a human-relations warping pace, and as men and women get caught in the vortex of career advancement or job survival, the biggest sacrifice that parents make on the altar of family sustenance is their continuous bonding with their children. And being subconsciously aware of something amiss in their relationship with their offspring, they come up with measured amounts of ‘quality time’ at predetermined hours of the day, or they seek to compensate for the shortage of this greatest of gifts with excessive material demonstrations of affection and profuse verbal assurances. But outward effusions of affection can never be a substitute for continuous internal bonding.
In my many years as a teacher, I observed children as young as three and a half years old being virtually abandoned by their parents to the care of strangers in boarding schools in their native country, while they returned to the Gulf or to the US so they could better lay up provisions for the future of these very children they left behind. Today, I see or hear of some of these same children, now grown up and parents themselves. The lack of bonding did cause severe sychological disorders in a very few of these former school boarders. But the vast majority did not turn out to be violence-prone adults or introverts or social misfits. On the contrary they proved to be reliable, hardy and successful citizens.
But I discerned one vital ingredient that was missing in all of them: Their concept of parenting, their attitude towards their now old parents, their relationship with their spouses, and with people in general, were not as deep as those of the people that had a history of unbroken bonding with their parents. Their relationships initially tend to be shallow or problematic, and only their constant and earnest efforts in overcoming mentalities and attitudes formed in childhood could offset their defective bonding with their parents. Yet, I can’t remember any case where the negative effects of an improperly bonded relationship in childhood days were completely offset by personal efforts to correct a wounded subconscious. The effects, it seems, are lifetime, unless a great miracle occurs in the heart of the grownup child whose parents couldn’t give them the ‘agape’ kind of bonding. And miracles are rare phenomena in an increasingly Godless world, aren’t they?
I also found that the aged parents in the retirement homes who were the most lonely and the least visited by their children are those very parents who had deprived their children of the greatest gift in their tender years.
Bonding is impossible without the actual presence of the parents. But it is not the kind of presence so demanded by quality time advocates. A parent can spend all the quality time with their child and still find 10 or 15 years later that they have lost forever something of incalculable preciousness in the hearts of their offsprings. The ‘I-am-always-there-for-you-no-matter-what’ is a gift given through the spontaneous vibes of the heart more than through the deliberate verbal demonstrations of affection and calculated allocations of time.
This inviolable bonding between parents and children is the most precious legacy that one generation can pass on to the next. The inadequately bonded child, for all the verbal assurances and quality time given to him by his concerned parents, is not likely to bond adequately with his own offspring, and thus passes on a plague of shallow family relations.
The greatest of gifts that parents can give their child is also the greatest gift that a husband can render his wife…that which shoots a wave of thrill down the spine of a woman every time she unexpectedly sights her man. It is also the gift that binds two young children with a friendship that remains intact as ever even after a separation of several decades.
As I write this, I remember that I promised my boyhood chum I will be meeting him two days from now in his hometown about 100 kilometers from my place. It was only a few days ago that I heard his voice on the phone, after having lost track of him for 37 years. The last time I saw him was when we were both discovering, somewhat mischievously, the magic of the first year of our teen lives, and I just can’t wait to see how he looks now and to give him a bear hug…