The Language of Love for Our Children
The coming of Valentine’s Day seems an ideal time to write about one of the greatest, most enduring loves. No, I am not writing about romantic love. This is about our love for our children and how we express it. There are moments in our lives when we feel like bursting with love for our kids – when we see their sweet faces poke out from their blankets just before going to sleep at night or when we see their faces light up at the discovery of a bug under a rock. But how do we express our love through our words? There are some ways we can become more conscious of the words we are selecting to build deeper, more trusting relationships between family members and truly express the love we feel for them. Here are my secrets (or now, not so secret!) of the language of love.
Express love every day.
As a person who has experienced multiple deaths of relatives in my life, at times I will ask, “What if this were my last day?” Have I said the things I want my family to know related to how I feel about them? Kids will always benefit by hearing a direct, sincere “I love you.” from a parent. I notice some adults wait for their children to say the phrase to them. Some are even hurt that they don’t hear it more often. Rest assured, our children feel love. But we, as adults, are responsible for modeling the articulation of our love. That’s how our children learn and feel free to express and name what they feel. A friend told me, “I was never told that I was loved as a child so it feels strange and unnatural to say it to my own. But I do. Sometimes I have to get up for it. Force myself because I know it’s the right thing to do.” That’s the kind of commitment that is required if we are to break patterns we don’t like or value from previous generations. Our children are ready and eager to hear that they are loved and in the absence of that, they create stories – untrue stories – about why they are not loved. Make sure they hear that they are.
Assure love after a conflict or misbehavior.
Children feel particularly vulnerable after they have made a poor choice or have argued with you. It’s human nature to worry that behavior can influence or even determine love. And we, as parents, put a premium on actions (since we often focus on them) so children have a hard time understanding that they can make a poor choice, you can be mad and you can still hold love for them all at once. So when a poor choice occurs, focus your words on the action not the doer of the action. You may not be able to express love in the heat of the moment (though sometimes it does help to de-escalate a conflict but only if it’s genuine and from the heart). But say it at the end of the day so that your child knows she is loved no matter what, unconditionally. Tomorrow she can make a new better choice knowing that you love her and will support her in doing so. Call it your own legacy. She will be well-equipped to love her family members unconditionally as she grows because of your example.
There may be no greater demonstration of love than deep listening.
Listen with empathy to truly understand both thoughts and feelings. If your child only shares a thought but you can hear there is feeling behind it, ask. “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated about your friend. Is that what you’re feeling?” The insightful book Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds suggests that, though tempting, it’s important to keep advice out of your reflective listening.
Even the best listeners can unwittingly put ideas and suggestions into the mind of others – it can be so subtle that people don’t know they are doing it…They (those who use clean language) use only the other person’s words and questions related to those words to get results. 1
And the “results” to which the authors are referring in this case would be showing trust in your children’s ability to think through their actions and feelings to better understand themselves, the people around them and the effects of their actions. Facilitating a child’s thinking in this way can support him in internalizing thought processes that lead to responsible decision making. It also paves the way for a more trusting relationship so that if problems arise, he feels safe enough to come to you to discuss them.
Use feeling words.
We tend to be in the habit of not using feelings words. Despite all of the important work done in the field of emotional intelligence, culturally, there is still a sense that feelings are a weakness. Emotion words don’t have to signal weakness if we use them intentionally. But they do open us up and make us more vulnerable. And that is the very reason why it’s so important to share with family members how we are truly feeling. Emotional honesty allows for intimacy. As we search for the words to articulate our emotions, we are becoming more self-aware. And simultaneously modeling self-awareness for our children. We can address their hurt, anger, and frustration much more effectively if we have helped them develop a way to communicate so that they can be understood. In any upsetting situation, try and pinpoint the child’s feeling and always ask, “Is that right?”
Use similes and metaphors to help discover and define feelings.
We use metaphors so often in life, we tend to take them for granted. “She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.” “He is eating like a pig.” “This match was made in heaven.” Kids hear and attempt to figure out the metaphors adults use regularly but sometimes get confused by them. I find myself often explaining metaphors in books I read to my son. The Clean Language authors claim that metaphors can allow us access to our unconscious minds and can serve as a powerful tool for understanding how we are really feeling about a situation. For children who are just learning about metaphors, we can become more aware of the language we use and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. For example, if I were to say “I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders today.” I might catch myself and talk a bit further to describe the feeling. “I am feeling overwhelmed by how many items are on my to-do list. I’m thinking about it so much that it feels like a physical pressure. I need to do something to help ease my worries. I could make a list. Or I could sit and breathe. You want to help me?”
Recognize the good.
Notice and point out when your child is kind or takes responsibility without reminders. So often, we play the “Gotcha!” game as parents. “You forgot this.” “You left that behind.” “You made a mess here.” And because we are so busy focused on the mistakes of life, we forget ourselves to point to the good even though we all tend to forget daily tasks. “Oops, you are going to have to wear a day-old shirt because I forgot to get the laundry done last night.” is a common refrain of my own.
It doesn’t take long to recognize the good but it does take some presence of mind. We do have to pay attention to our kids not to catch them doing wrong but to catch them doing right. If kids are reinforced by recognizing their faults, they too will focus on their faults. And along with the fear of making mistakes (which often leads to more of the same), they will accumulate shame for their long list of missteps. All it takes is a simple “I notice you threw your laundry down the shoot. That’s taking responsibility. Great!” statement. If we are able to regularly find and shine a light on their strengths and the many ways they contribute to our family lives, they will grow with an identity that is confident and resilient.
Cultivate deeper understanding.
Because so often our greatest challenges with our kids stem directly from their developmental struggles to learn what they know they need to, learning about children’s development deepens our understanding of them. We gain empathy for their challenges. We recognize their mistakes as an important part of their learning process. We work harder to support their learning. And we gain more patience along the way. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children (not available in any store) is learning about their development. Check out the free resource, NBC Parent Toolkit to begin the process!
Do no harm.
Adults use any number of words, phrases and expressions that children don’t understand. Even in adolescence, though kids may “try on” sarcasm, they still do not truly understanding the intention since the words are the opposite of the feeling behind the words. Speaking directly, cleanly and clearly can be an aspiration we can all work toward. Try to eliminate language that shuts others down like “Shut up.” by asking how it makes a child feel when it’s said to him. In addition, children sometimes retaliate in a parent-child argument with hurtful words like “I hate you.” Try not to take those statements to heart. Though they are intended to wound in the moment, they are coming from a feeling of a lack of control. If you meet that lack of control with you own lack of control by getting upset, it will only escalate the situation. Better to walk away and take time to cool down. In calmer moments, discuss how those words are painful and how you could rephrase in order to express upset without harming. You might ask, “Could you say instead, ‘I hate what you did. I hate what you are doing.’?” Also, I’ve heard adults say that in moments of anger and upset, they have “joked” about not loving a child or loving another more or wishing a child hadn’t been born. Those kinds of remarks can stay with a child for a lifetime. Better to walk away or simply stop talking so that you don’t regret your words later.
Maybe all love is complicated and simple at the same time. This certainly is true for the love we have for our children. We feel so deeply for them that we want them to have the best of everything in life. Yet they have their own minds, personalities, desires and purposes along with the need to express who they are in their own unique way. Often the toughest, most important job of a parent is stepping back and letting children think and act in ways in which they can learn for themselves. And knowing that, we will always be right there to love them.
1 Sullivan, W. & Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.