As a family therapist, the most powerful piece of advice I give and follow was not included in my graduate work or my clinical training.
It is a lesson I learned from my dog.
There is this thing that our dogs do when we walk in the room where they shake their shaggy bodies from nose to tail and make happy, snorty, grunty noises as they run towards us. Their entire body says, “I am overjoyed that you are here.”
Is it any wonder that we call them our best friends? This thing they do is magical, and I believe it’s something we should all do with our littles.
When my kids walk into the room, I LIGHT UP just like my dog. Not subtly. My face turns towards them with full attention and a smile, I say their name with glee, and I stand up and move towards them. I greet them with exuberance. I do this every morning when they wake up and come home from school.
Our reunions are rituals in delight.
When our kids see us delight in their presence, they feel delight-FULL. They experience their worthiness for connection reflected in our expressions of joy. This creates protection around their self-worth that helps them to flourish internally and feel confident in themselves.
Sometimes when I share this advice, someone will ask, “But if we do this, won’t our children expect other people to do it too and be ill-prepared for an often harsh and cold world?” The answer to those questions, in order, is yes, and then no.
Yes, they will become accustomed to close relationships where they are adored. They will find it normal to be cherished and loved with enthusiasm by their friends, family, and sweethearts. (No, they will not expect it from their bosses or strangers on the street). They will believe they are worthy of great care and connection. And they will be naturally wary of developing close relationships with people who treat them with indifference or cruelty. These are all good things.
And no, they will not be ill-prepared for “real life.” In fact, there is a large collection of data from the research tool the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire (ACE) that reveals that the more adversity and isolation a child experiences in their developmental years, the more health and relationship challenges they face as adults. Rough or cold treatment in childhood wears down a person’s sense of hope and worthiness.
Just as our dog’s freely shared love helps us to cope with the pains of life, so does our enthusiastic delight adds comfort and support towards our kids.
Plus, when we share our delight outwardly with our children, they learn to share it in kind with each other, with us, and with their friends. It’s contagious, pure and simple.
The key is to start as young as you can. It is far easier to develop this rhythm with young children than when they are teens. By the time they get to that stage, they have turned into cats. Jumping up and down in excitement with the average adolescent is far more likely to send them running under their beds than into our arms.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show your delight towards your teens. It just means they will just need you to temper your wagging from a puppy-level exuberance into something more like an old dog shake. They need to know they are wanted by you, but just in a less embarrassing way.
Regardless of how old your child is, if you can follow this ancient dog wisdom, you will create a deeply powerful and protective bond. This canine-approved piece of parenting advice is not just good; it’s DOGGONE GOOD. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
BONUS TIP: Try it with your partner, the ‘ol dog shake and wag ain’t bad for our relationships with our significant others too.
Eli Harwood is a licensed therapist, author, and educator who is passionate about helping people develop secure attachment relationships with their children and partners. Eli has worked with individuals, couples and families for the past 16 years in her therapy practice and is on a mission to give every parent a chance to create secure bonds with their children. Eli has three children and can be found running her mouth about all things connection-focused on her popular social media accounts under the handle @attachmentnerd on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook. Her first book, Securely Attached, hits shelves via Penguin Random House in January 2024.