Let’s try a present-life thought experiment, shall we? Think of a current difficulty in your life, any difficulty. Something in your life that you’d like to be other than the way it currently is. Now think of a person who isn’t there for you in ways that you might ideally need and wish them to be. It will most likely be someone known or unknown whose presence, knowledge and abilities might make your difficulty much less challenging or anxiety-producing.
Congratulations, you’ve just answered your own BBQ Question. I used to call this The Big Brain Question, but after closer examination I’ve come to call it The Barbeque Question, because oftentimes the difficulties “No” raises in answer to the question, “Are you there for me?” can make us feel like we’re being raked over hot coals.
Like one in five kids currently living in America, and hundreds of millions of others around the world, I lived the first 18 years of my life in poverty with a single mom on welfare. Poverty works to pretty significantly delay development in young kids. Great swaths of neural growth and connectivity that normally grow in response to a family environment that has a father in it, failed to be nourished into full bloom in my sisters’ and my brain as a result of dad’s total abandonment of our family. The good news is that development delayed isn’t necessarily development lost forever.
Early on I somehow managed to intuitively recognize that a fatherless environment in Connecticut where I lived, wasn’t optimal for me and my brain’s development. So, when I turned 18 and the opportunity arose, I borrowed money from 20 of my “homies,” and drove with Billy and Carol – my best friend’s brother and his girlfriend – across the country to California to begin life anew. Apparently, I somehow figured out that environment plays a pivotal role in brain development.
Overwhelmed in Lala-land
California was a meteorological and cultural Bizarro World to me, and my brain took a long time to adapt to it. Fortunately, there was a woman there whom I’d known from the housing projects: Edith Labovitz. She was a widow raising four sons. In California I became her acquired fifth son, and for the first few years she was someone who unfailingly answered the BBQ Question “Yes” for me. She and her sons did a lot to ease my fears and make me stop feeling like a complete stranger in Lala-land. In terms of speeding up my delayed brain development, living with Mrs. L. and her four sons made a world of difference. It was a difference that I suspect made the month I spent in my thirties in a Community Mental Health hospital for “extreme grief reaction” as short as it was.
Touch for Neurological Health
Speaking of that hospital, they had a rule there that had to be strictly obeyed – No PUDA. That is: no Public Displays of Affection. Of all the misunderstood needs for improving mental health by the psychiatric establishment, this prohibition against public displays of affection had to be one of the craziest. Most of the people in the mental hospital, me included, were there because of a lack of affection in their lives, public or private. And in fact, one of the most memorable healing moments in that hospital was when a night nurse took me aside at 3AM one night as I was roaming the halls, put her hand gently on my arm, and told me of her own “extreme grief reaction.” She had been left at the altar by one of my heroes … Muhammad Ali!
One central reason we need people to be there for us in our lives is to help us manage stress and anxiety. As this work from the Touch Research Institute attests, a loving touch from someone we respect and trust can go a long way toward helping us manage the stress often involved not only in new learning, but also the stress arising from simple day-to-day living. This method of stress management came for me late in my development – in the form of my very first serious California girlfriend, Marlyce Greco (a pseudonym). What’s interesting is that Marlyce and every subsequent serious relationship I’ve been in since has changed its form when the answer to The Barbeque Question switched from “Yes” to “No.” We lost that resonant feeling in the wake of Marlyce’s experimentation with pot, and we had few tools, especially physical touch, to be able to work things through and get reconnected.
So, touching our kids in affectionate, loving, non-sexual ways is one of the most powerful things we can do to let them know we are there for them, for consistently answering the BBQ “Yes!” Let me repeat that: touching our kids in affectionate … loving… non-sexual ways is one of the most powerful things we can do to let them know we are there for them.