CONVEYING LOVE IN PARENTING
CONVEYING LOVE IN PARENTING
By Len Lantz, M.D.
AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE
I was at my computer the other day because I decided that I wanted to continue writing about effective approaches to parenting. To get my creative juices flowing, I decided to do a little internet search. I was looking for the top internet searches on parenting to find out what information parents wanted to know, so I typed “How can I get my child”—and my heart sank at the first phrase Google auto-populated: “to stop hating me.”
Well, that made me feel sick to my stomach. I shared my experience over dinner, and we started wondering if people really were looking up these phrases on the internet. My daughter grabbed her phone and entered the search phrase “How to get my mother,” and Google supplied the rest: “to love me.” Taken aback, she then tried the search phrase “How to get my father,” and Google supplied the rest of the phrase “to love me.” We guessed that these were frequent teenage searches, so I decided to try it. I entered “How to get my mother” and Google supplied the rest of the phrase “into a nursing home!” In full disclosure (and before you rat me out to my mother), I have not been searching for information on nursing homes. While my daughter and I have not been searching for answers to these questions, people in our respective age groups probably are.
THE LOVE DISCONNECT
If it’s true that a sizeable number of kids are not perceiving love from their parents, then I think we need to ensure that our parenting approaches include something very basic: the communication of love. Are we as parents effectively conveying our love to our children? I don’t mean for any of this to sound critical or accusatory. I ask myself these same questions. It’s one thing to love your children with lots of hugs and kisses, and hopefully you do. However, it’s important to consider whether you are conveying your love for them in a manner that they can see it, hear it, and feel it the most.
Books have been written about conveying love to your kids. Some of the best known are The 5 Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell and How to Really Love Your Child by Ross Campbell. The first book does a great job of explaining that each person has a different love language, a preferred way of understanding and receiving love. You might have a different love language than your child. Have you ever done something really nice for your child only to have it blow up in your face? Not speaking your child’s love language could have been one of the reasons why. The second book gives some very concrete ways of conveying love to kids beyond saying, “I love you.” Many of the suggestions involve nonverbal communication of love.
The way you express your love as a parent (and want to receive it) is important. But if you want your significant other and your kids to know the full measure of your love for them, you might need to intentionally communicate your love for them in the way it resonates best for them. If you ever wonder, “Whose love language matters most?” in conveying love to your child, the answer is theirs.
Conveying love effectively is probably one of the best and most important starting points in parenting and developing a healthy and enduring relationship with your child.
WHAT DOES RESEARCH HAVE TO SAY ABOUT PARENTAL LOVE AND EFFECTIVE PARENTING?
Very little. While there are many useful research findings on parent-child relationships, most of the research on parenting and parental love centers on childhood well-being and outcomes through the lens of parent-child bonding/attachment, rather than parental efficacy studies. Consider this statement:
Kids who feel good act good.
In my 20+ years of working with kids and parents, I have found that statement to be generally true for most kids, most of the time. It’s not saying that kids who misbehave are not feeling loved, but it helps kids and their parents to have a more stable footing in their relationship when love is effectively conveyed. Kids who have a strong sense that they are loved feel more secure, have more positive feelings toward their parents, and have a greater sense of emotional well-being.
COMPARING INDEPENDENT RESEARCH AND THE 5 LOVE LANGUAGES
If the research on parental love is limited, then we need a framework for learning how to effectively convey our love to our children. While I’m not aware of any research that directly looks at the accuracy of The 5 Love Languages of Children, there is independent research that supports the 5 Love Languages (5LL) categories in couples’ research. Drs. Chapman and Campbell use the same 5LLs for kids as they do for adults:
- Physical Touch
- Words of Affirmation
- Quality Time
- Acts of Service
I also found two recent research studies that might shed some light on the accuracy of 5LL for children. In one study by Sabey and colleagues, researchers interviewed 52 families of children (ages three to seven) and found that the children perceived love along five different categories:
- Playing or doing activities together
- Demonstrating affection (physical and verbal)
- Creating structure
- Helping or supporting
- Giving gifts or treats
In the other study by McNeely and Barber, the researchers surveyed and studied 4,300 adolescents (ages 14–17) from 12 different nations and found five different categories of perceived love:
- Emotional and companionate support (affection and encouragement)
- Moral guidance and advice (modeling/teaching moral behavior)
- Instrumental support (buy/provide necessities and things I want, help me)
- Allow freedoms (watching tv, using a cell phone)
- Show respect or trust
If you compare the findings of the two groups of researchers and the 5LLs, you can see many similarities.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF CONVEYING LOVE
I’m going to provide you with some rules of thumb for conveying love to your kids. I believe that Drs. Chapman and Campbell did us a big favor by creating strategies and frameworks for discussing and improving our communication of love to our children, but their advice does not take us the entire way. Here are some ideas of where to start:
Use your child’s love language: If you don’t instinctually know your child’s love language(s), consider reading The 5 Love Languages of Children.
It’s a quick and easy read that will help you explore your own love language and will help you in all of your close relationships. The book also contains suggested activities for each love language and a “Love Languages Mystery Game” to help you learn from your child about their primary love languages.
Be focused when showing love: Love does not multi-task.
When you are communicating love to your child, it’s important to be near them, share your positive nonverbal love and affection (positive eye contact, positive physical contact), not be distracted by other people or other tasks, and not mix your expression of love with your other needs for your child (non-related instructions or information).
Love has no “buts”: Love does not send mixed signals.
It’s important to avoid sending kids mixed signals. Especially when you are conveying love to your kids, it is not the time to tell them how frustrating they can be, give them gifts with strings attached, or guilt trip them into reciprocating something special you did for them.
Develop the habit of conveying love: Sharing love daily is not too often.
Speaking your child’s love language regularly does not mean buying them toys or giving them a cookie every day, even if their love language primarily is receiving gifts. Kids can receive your love in other ways than gifts alone; however, sharing your love with them often involves a little bit of your time. What habits or routines can you develop to intentionally show your love to your child every day?
A NOTE TO FATHERS
Most parenting research focuses on mothers and children (and it is not uncommon for children to express feeling especially close to their mothers), so fathers might need to be especially proactive in figuring out what the most effective means are for them to convey their love to their children. One researcher pointed out that fathers might express love differently with their children. If you think that there might be a discrepancy between how you are attempting to show love (for example, working long hours to provide for your family) and how your kids are receiving it, it’s time for you to reassess your strategy. Check in periodically with your kids and make sure you are speaking their love language so that they really know how much you love them.
YOU CAN CONVEY LOVE EFFECTIVELY TO YOUR CHILD
Parenting can be one of the best and most rewarding things you ever do. It can also be one of the most challenging and frustrating things you’ve ever imagined. Effectively conveying your love for your child is a wonderful foundation to build your relationship with your child and establish your parenting style. You can know with certainty that they understand—at a very deep level—how much you love them. Love won’t solve all your problems as a parent, but it will help. It will help both you and your child get through tough times together with your relationship intact and it will help your relationship stand the test of time. If you are not already doing it, start intentionally speaking your child’s love language today!