Do you remember that scene from School of Rock, “Those who can’t do, teach”?
It recently came to mind after teaching a seminar about parent-child attachments. The seminar, entitled “Parental Attachment and Your Relationship with God,” went into detail on Attachment Theory: how we carry our attachment formed in infancy into adulthood, how that may impact our perception of God, and ultimately, how God meets us and changes us across time through his gracious, unfailing presence.
For further context, especially for those new to this, Attachment Theory reflects a person’s internal system of emotions, behaviors, and thoughts that develop through interactions between a child and an attachment figure (parent/caregiver). Through internalizing the attachment figure as a safe haven and secure base, our attachment system shapes our memories, motivations, and expectations of self, others, and the world. It explains the instinct for proximity maintenance (or lack thereof) with those we love and the distress we experience upon separation (or, again, the lack).
After teaching the class, the following 72 hours brought an onslaught of anxiety about my own approach to parenting my daughter. My mind camped out on a law-filled mound of guilt over the pressure to build a secure attachment with my child versus an anxious or avoidant one. I feared I am failing her, without the capacity to change. Further, I was struggling to integrate any of the gracious, gospel-centered approaches to attachment I had just taught other people. This experience brought to mind a passive-aggressive Post-it note I saw every day for 3 years at an agency I used to work at (which ironically was about washing dishes), asserting, “When we know better, we do better.”
Well, I know better. But I don’t always do better. That’s my problem.
All the knowledge about my daughter’s attachment needs is readily available in my mind. Be available, be attuned, and be responsive. But, to my dismay, my anxiety and selfishness still get in the way of being a thoroughly secure parent, which leads me to deep distress over 1) my limitations and 2) the uncertainty of my daughter’s future and fears that she has an insecure attachment to me.
Jesus met me in this distress through my husband sharing a word of grace and truth with me. It is in the place of incapability where Jesus meets us the most, much like Paul’s experience with his “thorn in the flesh.” He spoke to Paul about this and said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:8). How absolutely outrageous and antithetical to “When we know better, we do better.” When we set down our efforts and “strengths,” God’s grace supplants.
When it comes to the distress over the uncertainty of my daughter’s path and fears about her attachment style, God comforted me with the notion that he is the one crafting her story, not me. And where I fail, he does not. As parents, we often have an illusion of control over them. Do we have influence? Absolutely yes. Do we control their outcome? Absolutely not.
So, while the first five years of life are the critical period where attachment (and other important developments) is first formed, it’s not where it ends. Because, when in God’s story is something broken ever permanent? When do we get marked “too wounded” or “too wrong” with no possibility of restoration? God, in his genius, made human brains with “neuroplasticity,” which is a word to describe how the brain can change and forge new approaches to the world. Our memories, motivations, and expectations about ourselves, our relationships, and the world can be altered.
Those initial pathways from early childhood are often the strongest, which can make change feel intimidating. While the brain is adaptable and can form new paths, it’s more like forging a new path in a thick forest and the old paths like walking down a paved road. Change, then, requires repetition over time of truth to challenge our beliefs and experience to reinforce them. Like water, we’re prone to go down the path of least resistance, the path of familiarity. But through interactions with God in word, prayer, and community, we change. That which is new becomes familiar. God makes something out of nothing.
Beautifully, the grace of Christ is simultaneously a truth and an experience we receive repeatedly over time. It’s received by no work of our own; it’s not something we can muster up. We change not by our hands but by his.
He himself is our perfect attachment figure – he is our safe haven, secure base, and close friend. He’s a safe haven in that when we are in distress, threatened, or scared he is responsive, attuned, and available. He is our secure base, from which we can move and have freedom in the world without fear, knowing that he will be there, come what may. And he desires proximity to us in that he came and took the form of a human and endured the pain and suffering of this world in order to be united to us, tearing the veil in the temple in the process, which, in the old covenant, kept the world at bay due to its sin.
God will not fail us in the ways that we have been failed by our parents. And just as he is healing me over time and his Spirit is reminding me of his grace, so will he do this for my daughter, because he is lovingly crafting her story. And as much as it pains me, I cannot be all things to my daughter. In fact, I will never be able to love her how she needs to be loved because she needs the consistent, steady love only Christ has. So in the times when I am unavailable, unresponsive, or unattuned to her, God is present with arms open wide, knowing exactly what she needs in ways I will never be able to.
And that’s the gospel for all of us: the good news of God’s unbreakable, un-anxious, and unavoidant attachment to us. In our incapability, he parts the clouds of our anxiety, so that those who can’t do can rest.