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Understanding Children: How Do I Love You?

What child could question his parents’ love for him?  Denise scolds her five-year-old for tracking mud on the floor.  Rob is on travel (in a different time zone) and forgets to make a bedtime call to his two-year-old.  Brian quarrels with his teen-ager about dodging family time.  Melanie is busy with the baby every time her toddler wants help with a toy.  But of course you love your child.

Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell have laid out a guide for parents, The Five Love Languages of Children, to follow up Chapman’s instructive framework for couples struggling to communicate their love to each other.   As a marriage counselor, Chapman saw the frustrating patterns of “But I  … (fill in your unquestionable gesture of affection) … and he/she thinks I don’t care.”  Likewise, parents and children are missing messages that could benefit their relationship.  Dad takes a week off to be with the family at a resort, and all the children want to do is to watch cartoons and IM their friends back home.  His love message would have been better received had he made individual dates with each of his children, asking them to invite a friend along to a movie of their choice. 

The simple premise is that if one partner in the relationship is speaking Morse Code and the other is speaking Pig Latin, not a lot of meaning will pass between you.  Different modes or “languages” work better with different children, but there’s no harm in being fluent in all five.  In fact, Chapman and Campbell suggest that children should experience the whole set of love languages so they can better communicate with their future spouses and children.

The important thing is to recognize when the love message has not been received.  In child development terms, “low self-esteem” is what can happen to a child who feels unloved and therefore sees no value in himself.  Clinginess, whining, tattling, clumsiness, lack of confidence, irritability, aggression, and a host of other “bad” behaviors result.  Every child must know that he is unconditionally loved.

Research abounds on the mutual benefits of parent-infant massage, breast-feeding, “baby-wearing,” etc. to build a strong emotional bond.  Strides have been made in the care of vulnerable infants to keep them from suffering from a lack of human touch.  Skin receptors know the difference between medical tape and a tender caress.  
      You can blow raspberries on her belly, rub noses, and give shoulder rides to your little one, and high five, back rub, and partner on a toboggan with your older one.  Keep the touches coming as you gauge the reaction to your hugs and kisses.  Less for the child who bristles and arches away, more for the child who snuggles closer.


A few choice words can have a powerful and lasting effect.  Tender words express affection:  “You fill me with joy.” Words can convey admiration: “What a clever way to do that!”  Words can give encouragement:  “You played a hard game!”  Words can guide positively:  “Carry the pitcher with two hands so the water will make it to the thirsty plant.”  The child who knows you love him because you tell him so will enjoy verbal games with you: “I like you because . . .” and “I love you like . . .”  

“Quality time” gets a lot of lip service, but most parents still come up short.  How much of your day is spent on undivided focus on your child’s needs, feelings, and ideas?  A deft parent can meld potential interruptions into a steady flow of positive attention.  The cell phone rings while you’re out together.  “Oh, hi, Caroline – it’s your Aunt Caroline – yes, we’re shopping for Jack’s new shoes.  He’s growing so fast.  Can he say hello to you?” “Hi, Aunt Caroline.  Uh hunh.  Blue ones.”  “I’ll call you tonight about Sunday.  We’re going to see Aunt Caroline and cousin Dee Dee on Sunday!  Bye!  Jack says Bye, too!”  Instead of Jack being made to feel as if your conversation took you away from him, he himself has just checked in with Aunt Caroline about what he is doing and when he will see her.  


The perfect gift need not be extravagant.  Just thoughtful.  Expensive gifts, especially when frequent, dilute the message of pure love, causing the recipient to feel like just another bill to pay.  A gift of love could be found – a four-leaf clover from the lawn presented on the day of a test, made – a tiny blanket for his teddy bear, or symbolic – a charm for her bracelet representing something special about her.  For a gift to be an expression of love, there should be no strings attached, no subtextual meanings.  It cannot be an apology – I feel bad that the baby’s needs often come before yours.  It cannot be leverage  – Here’s a new movie to watch so you’ll leave me alone to write my report.  It cannot be a manipulation – These are expensive tickets so you’d better appreciate the operetta.  A perceptive child is hurt by such “gifts.”  The best gifts are given in a loving way, whether out of the blue or to mark a special occasion, and say more about the recipient than the giver.   

Doing a favor, much like offering a gift, can say “I love you” so long as it says nothing else.  Think of an act of kindness that your child would appreciate:  record a television show or movie he has wanted to see, stock up on his favorite food, bring his forgotten homework to school, or do one of his chores for him.  You do these favors, not out of duty, but because it makes you feel as good as it makes him feel – because the action expresses your genuine feelings of love.

The author is available to speak to groups of parents in the greater Annapolis area.

The author is the founding director of
the Chesapeake Children’s Museum —
a multiple intelligences learning environment.

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