This week Jews around the world celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, Feast of the Tabernacles. For seven days we eat, relax, and spend time with our families in special booths called sukkot. (The singular form is sukkah and the picture for this article is my family’s sukkah!) The sukkot evoke a memory of the booths the Jewish people lived in during the forty years of their wilderness sojourn as well as the Divine Clouds of Glory that enveloped them and protected them during those travels. Although a sukkah is a temporary structure, flimsy and open to the elements, it is ironically a place of safety and security. Every day during this season of the High Holy Days and Sukkot, Jews recite Psalm 27 with its powerful words, “For in the day of evil He shall hide me in His pavilion”, but the Hebrew word for pavilion is actually sukkah. Although a sukkah has no structural integrity and wouldn’t pass an engineering safety inspection, it epitomizes a place of safety and security within a Divine relationship. In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom describes the shade of the sukkot coverings as “tzila demehemenusa”, shadow of Faith. The message of the sukkah is that true security derives from a relationship with God. A person of faith maintains serenity and a sense of security regardless of the storms of life due to his unshakeable bond with his Heavenly Father.
The sukkah's lesson is profoundly important for parents and children. The parental bond offers security to a child just as God’s care extends it to us. As we nurture the parent-child relationship, we are building fortifications around our children’s hearts that will provide security for our children so long as they feel connected to us, no matter what external events occur.
I was flipping through old newspaper clippings last week and found a Wall Street Journal article from October 26-27, 2019 entitled The Key to Raising A Confident Child by Alison Gopnik. Ms. Gopnick reported on a mindblowing recent study. There is a classic psychological experiment wherein rats are placed in a maze and if a rat runs one specific route it receives an electric shock. Unsurprisingly, the next time the rat is placed in the maze, it avoids the painful route.
The problem with this avoidance strategy is that if rats (or people) always avoid unpleasant or painful experiences, there would be no new learning, exploration, or discoveries. There must be a system God designed for exploration of new pathways even when one is fearful based on negative experiences. What could compel a rat to persevere through a painful stimulus for the sake of exploration and new opportunities?
In 2006, Professor Regina Sullivan of New York University found the answer to this question. She led a study retesting the classic rat maze study but this time used young rats instead of adults. Would you believe that the young rats preferred the path that shocked them so long as their mothers were with them? The presence of a rat’s mother provided enough security so that the young rat was willing to tolerate a shock in order to explore and discover new areas of the maze.
Bear with me for just another minute, because this next piece is incredible. In October 2019 Professor Nina Tottenham of Columbia University and Professor Sullivan set up a similar experiment with preschool children. The researchers didn’t shock the children, but they showed them two shapes, one of which was accompanied by an unpleasantly loud noise. After being exposed to both shapes (and the accompanying negative stimulus), they invited the toddlers to explore one of two tunnels, each one marked by one of the presented shapes. As long as the children’s parents were absent, they preferred the innocuous route. However, in the presence of their parents, the youngsters preferred the tunnel with the unpleasant stimulus!
It turns out that external realities don’t determine children’s experiences nearly as much as the relationships with their parents do. Our children can thrive through painful scrapes and even global pandemics when they feel securely connected to us. Anxiety and fear aren’t products of scary situations nearly as much as they are reflections of internal unease. The attachment relationship between parents and children gives young children a secure base from which to venture forth and explore their world, risk and potential pain notwithstanding. The parent-child bond is a sukkah, providing security through a loving relationship.
A parent’s primary concern should be building and maintaining a relationship with their child that offers the intrinsic security of a sukkah. Here are two simple techniques I learned from Gordon Neufeld that you can use in your families:
Offer your child attention BEFORE they ask for it and give MORE than they would ask for.
I know this one sounds incredibly difficult if you have a child who needs a seemingly infinite supply of your attention and energies, but trust me that if you can possibly catch a moment BEFORE he asks for you and you preempt him with a surprise hug (or whatever he craves), you will fill up his love tank significantly. If your child asks you for a kiss or a story, surprise them by offering MORE, “How about if instead of one story, I read you two stories!” I know you’re thinking you can’t possibly do this, but try it out a few times and see if it doesn’t actually save you time in the long run while also satiating your child’s deep need for a connection with you.
Give your child a way to hold on to you even when you’re apart.
Separations are very difficult for young children who need their parents to feel secure, yet they are a fact of life and even young children can’t always be with their parents. Consider offering them something of yours to hold on to and care for until you’re together again. I used to keep stuffed animals on my bed so they would (hopefully) pick up some of my scent and offer them to my young children before bedtime with the request that they take care of Mommy’s animal until the morning. They couldn’t hug me all night, but by hugging something of mine they felt connected and safe even when I wasn’t there. Before your child heads off to preschool, give them Dad’s cap to wear, or even point out that you’re both wearing the same color shirt and all day long when you look at your shirts you can think of how much you love each other.
Here is a third bonus suggestion! In my video Parenting So Your Children Will Listen I lay out for you many of the fundamental principles for building the parent-child relationship that will give your child security (and an innate desire to listen to you!). I hope you will download it for more insights to help you tap into your parenting potential and build a strong sukkah of relationship for your children.