“I love you” are three words all children need to hear very often from their parents. Around Valentine’s Day, it seems appropriate to have a column on this topic. Do you want those words to have real meaning to your child? Do you want to use these words to develop a level of intimacy in your family that communicates your heartfelt affection for your children? If so, consider strengthening I love you with the following suggestions. This information is adapted from an article by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller, the authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose.
1.) Use eye contact. Give your children your eyes when you say, “I love you.” When meaningful eye contact is made during moments of intimacy, it’s a way of connecting that helps you bond. Use your eyes to “touch your child.”
2.) Touch. A pat on the back, a hug, or a high-five will add meaning to verbal expressions of love. So will a slight squeeze of the shoulder or a kiss. Take your child’s hand in yours when you say, “I love you,” and add a tactile component to your words.
3.) Use names. The sweetest sound in any language is the sound of your own name. Names get our attention and build connectedness. Sadly, some children only hear their own names when they are in trouble. (“William, you better get in here!”) Add your child’s name to your expression of love. “I love you, Carlos,” or “Sally, I really love you.” Watch their reactions. Their facial expressions will encourage you to continue the practice of adding your child’s name to “I love you.”
4.) Add nonverbal signals to your spoken message. Smile, wink, and add pleasant facial expressions to your words. Make sure the message on your face is congruent with the one coming out of your mouth.
5.) Do not use the word when as part of your vocal communication of love. “I love you when you smile like that” or “When you choose that happy mood, I love you” can send a message to your children that your love is conditional. What children often hear is “I only love you when….” To love unconditionally, say “I love you” without any condition attached.
6.) Remove the word but from your description of love. “I love you, but….” is usually followed by a concern, problem, or frustration. When we express our love along with a concern, we send a mixed message. When we do this, children get confused and conclude that the love part is a manipulation intended to soften them up before the real message is delivered.
7.) Add because you are loveable to your manner of expressing love. “I love you because you are loveable” is an important concept for children to learn. It helps them understand that your love is attached to no specific condition. It simply is. Be careful not to add any other words after because. “I love you because you are thoughtful” adds a condition that communicates conditional love. The only acceptable phrase to use with because is because you are loveable.
8.) Say “I love you” at unexpected times. Children often hear our expressions of love at familiar times. We typically say “I love you” when we are going out the door on our way to work. We say it when we end a phone conversation. “I love you” is often the last communication our children hear as we tuck them into bed at night. Saying “I love you” at those times is often expected and certainly anticipated. To heighten the impact of these three valuable words, use them at unexpected times. Say them in the middle of a meal, as you are driving down the road in your car, or as you stand at the kitchen sink doing dishes together.
Some children are auditory and need to hear the words “I love you.” Others are tactile and need to be touched to feel loved. Still others are visual and need to see love on your face and in your actions. Why not give your children all three variations when you communicate your love?
One of your most important gifts as a parent is to help your child develop self-esteem. Your child needs your steady support and encouragement to discover his strengths. He needs you to believe in him as he learns to believe in himself. Loving him, spending time with him, listening to him, and praising his accomplishments are all part of this process.