Parents' love for their children: finding the right balance

Parents' love for their children: finding the right balance

Andrew Kania

One of the types of love that the Greek language offers us, is that of storge or "affection". The clearest example of this form of love is that which exists between parents and their children. Storge, it has been said, alongside eros is the most universally expressed form of love, for without storge there would be no raising of children, and without eros there would be no new generations to raise.

However, as Christ points out in the Gospel of St Matthew, one can indeed express storge and also be a reprobate: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:11, RSV).

Saint or sinner

We see the most hardened of criminals, even people who have murdered, cry joyful tears when their children are wed, or insist on giving their offspring the most expensive education in order to ensure a solid beginning to their lives. These individuals may care little for the vast majority of humanity who live and breathe. But as for their own children, well that is a completely different story. A person filled with storge love can truly be a saint as well as a grave sinner.

There is nothing essentially wrong about storge, allowing for the fact that it doesn't require much sacrifice when one compares storge to agape, the unconditional form of love. The love that parents have for their children is natural. Parents can readily monopolise their children's affections in the earliest of years and if the children are loved they should become dutiful.

But dutiful children, those that honour their parents, will experience clashes of loyalty if storge loses its balance as the years pass. For children are not born to remain children and the tensions that can arise between parents and their children too often stem from a degree of possessiveness when parents forget, or do not wish to admit, that children are theirs to nurture, but they are also individuals in their own right.

The English writer C.S. Lewis, in his work The Four Loves (1960), provided an insightful analysis of the consequences of an unbalanced storge , when he wrote: "It is easy to see how liability to this state is, so to speak, congenital in the maternal instinct. This, as we saw, is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give and therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift.

"We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves and we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching. Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We [the parents] must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say, 'They need me no longer', should be our reward.

"But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law. The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply only the good it can itself give. A much higher love - a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes - must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication. And of course it often does.

"But where it does not, the ravenous need to be needed will gratify itself either by keeping its objects needy or by inventing for them imaginary needs. It will do this all the more ruthlessly because it thinks (in one sense truly) that it is a Gift-love and therefore regards itself as 'unselfish'" (Lewis, 1960, p. 62).

How often do we hear of parental love driving children to distress; of the mother-in-law who does not want to let her child go, who is threatened by the love a son or daughter is being offered by a spouse or prospective spouse; and rather than rejoicing in this love, sets about suffocating the relationship.

Lewis' analysis is quite correct with regard to storge, for had storge been the highest love, it would have always sought the good of the other, rather than stooping to jealousy, vanity and spite. Unconditional love does not require possession. Nor does it force a child to feel guilt over becoming an adult, and having aspirations and loves and desires outside of the family home.

Saint Paul

St Paul in his divinely inspired wisdom wrote poignantly in his letter to the Ephesians that children should honour their parents and be obedient to them, but parents should not use this divinely-ordered duty to tear at and torment the hearts of their progeny. For while children should honour their parents, and by so doing honour the Creator the original source of life, parents should seek through their parenthood to express not only affection ( storge) for their children, but to connect this affection to a higher form of love, an unconditional love ( agape), one that is self-sacrificial, not self-seeking, one in which jealousy, possession and wounded pride play no part.

Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth, WA.

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