What’s the best way to say “I love you” to your child? It depends on your child’s unique love language. Author Gary Chapman illustrates five ways in his book, The Five Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively. According to Chapman, a message of love is received through:
- PHYSICAL TOUCH – Feeling appropriate touch from another
- WORDS OF AFFIRMATION – Hearing (or reading) words meant to affirm you
- QUALITY TIME – Getting someone else’s undivided attention
- RECEIVING GIFTS – Being the recipient of a gift—a visible symbol of love
- ACTS OF SERVICE – Experiencing when someone does something for you
Nearing Valentine’s Day, we asked our parenting coach Jill Weininger for advice on parental love and affection based on Chapman’s work. Drawing from Love and Logic™ principles, Jill shares thoughts for parents to consider as they communicate love through each child’s primary “language.”
It’s not just hugs or kisses. While for some it’s cuddling, for others it’s rough housing—wrestling over the blankets, going outside and playing touch football.
Be sensitive as kids get older. As kids age, what’s comfortable and appropriate shifts, maybe to a pat on the back and an attaboy or an attagirl.
Obviously, you never want to force physical touch. You don’t want to violate their sense of control. Tickling is one of the worst ways to do this; it’s that weird sensation that makes you laugh but feels uncomfortable, and it crosses that boundary, as kids feel very out of control.
Have those conversations about what’s good touch and bad touch, what’s comfortable and uncomfortable. Help them to understand through conversation how to set limits and help them figure out language to verbalize those limits. Also, help them strengthen the other ways of feeling love and affection.
WORDS OF AFFIRMATION
Be sure that praise is specific and authentic. “You did a great job” are empty words as opposed to, “When you were struggling with that math problem, you did a really good job of sticking with it,” or, “I noticed that when your friend was left out on the playground, you invited her to play.”
Very specific and genuine praise means so much more to people, and, as a bonus, it encourages desired behaviors: when you see a behavior in your children that you want them to repeat, call it out in a positive way; they’re more likely to repeat it.
It matters when and where you deliver the words of affirmation. Some kids will respond to those words of affirmation better if they’re given privately versus publicly, and sometimes this is based on their age. You’re not going to want to say to your 11-year-old in front of other 11-year-olds, “Hey, I noticed in practice today when so-and-so wasn’t getting the ball, you kicked the soccer ball to him.” Your 11-year-old is going to shrink away from you, and what was meant as a positive thing is going to have a negative impact.
Tone matters. For kids for whom words of affirmation is their love language, we have to be extra careful with our tone. It’s not just the words we speak but how we speak them that matters.
Don’t forget the power of the written word. When my eldest son was about 20, I wrote him a letter telling him very specifically how I admired certain traits in him and how well he handled some difficult situations he was going through at the time. He’s almost 25 now, and recently as I helped him unpack when he moved into his apartment, I came across the letter and discreetly tucked it back into the folder where it was. It was in his folder of important documents—his birth certificate, social security card, and passport.
It’s amazing that even if they don’t respond in the moment, our written words to our kids can have great power. Those letters might become valued keepsakes and have influence far beyond what we expected when we wrote them. As parents, we are often so caught up in the day-to-day management of our own lives and helping our kids and helping our spouses, etc., that we don’t normally take a moment to write a letter to our kids. But the written word with a very specific message can be more powerful than we think.
This is the most important thing we can give our children. While each child has a different balance of the five languages, with one being more dominant than the others, I believe that quality time is an important love language for every child. I believe everybody thrives on that quality time because relationships are built on it.
Quality time doesn’t necessarily mean quantity of time or a big event, like going to Disney World or Great America and spending tons of money. It doesn’t even have to be hours and hours of time. It’s really about putting away the distractions—their iPad and your phone—to focus on your child.
It’s being in the same space as them and being truly present to them in that moment—having eye contact and showing them, “At this moment in time, you are the most important thing.” Whether baking cookies or sorting socks together—it can be doing anything. Some of the best moments I’ve had with my kids were doing menial tasks and just being with them. I used to love washing the car with my kids when they were really little (and I had to put my phone away *wink* because I wouldn’t want that to get wet).
Put your phone away. As busy parents shuttling our kids all around, it’s easy to think that we are giving them time and attention. We take them to the park, but we sit on the bench looking at our iPhone. Yes, we need to decompress, too, but that doesn’t count as quality time. Going out and playing catch with your kid, answering a call from a friend, and talking on the phone while you’re throwing the ball back and forth—this doesn’t count as quality time because you’re not fully present. It’s a really hard thing to put our phones away in this day and age when everyone expects us to be accessible at all times; but put it away and truly be in the moment, especially for kids who thrive on that quality time.
It’s not necessarily about the monetary value. It’s about the thoughtfulness and the intention, so it can be a really small thing. If you have a “receiving gifts” child, it might be a good idea to start a collection of little things—maybe Hot Wheels cars, Barbie outfits, markers, gadgets, or accessories, depending on the age. It’s good because you can respond regularly with an itty bitty gift that costs you only a few bucks.
It’s important for those kids that their gifts aren’t bribes, that they’re not conditional. Separate the gift from the condition of receiving it.
ACTS OF SERVICE
Your response holds a lot of weight when these kids ask you to do something for them, whether it’s fixing their bike or sewing their cuddly toy. For example, a child whose love language is physical touch asks, “Can you help me with my homework?” If your response is, “I can, but give me 15 minutes,” that’s fine—but it could be hurtful for a child whose love language is acts of service. This doesn’t mean you have to drop everything to help them, but it does mean you have to gauge: Are they really seeking an affirmation of love through you supporting them in something? The only way to figure that out is to be attuned to your child.
HOW DO I ASCERTAIN WHAT MY CHILD’S LOVE LANGUAGE IS?
Love language expert Gary Chapman has these suggestions:
Look at how they express love
If they always want to make gifts for people, then their dominant love language is receiving gifts. If they see that you’re stressed and they say, “Mommy, do you want me to walk the dog for you, or can I do the dishes for you?” or they see someone is upset and they try to help them by doing a little task, then their love language is acts of service. If they see someone is upset and they come and give them a hug, their love language is physical touch. If they want to find the right words to make you feel better when you’re upset, then it’s words of affirmation.
Look at questions they ask, complaints they make
If they’re always inviting you: Do you want to play a game of H-O-R-S-E, or do you want to go on a bike ride, etc., then their love language is quality time.
Conversely, the other way to ascertain their love language is what they are complaining about. “You never tell me I do a good job” – that’s a child who needs some words of affirmation. “Can you just help me with this?” – that’s a child who’s asking for acts of service. Or, “You never do this with me [as opposed to for me]” – that’s a child who’s asking for quality time.
THE END GOAL
It’s important to see each child as an individual and how each receives love uniquely. It’s not about manipulating them or getting them to do what you want. It’s about strengthening your relationship with them and maybe helping them to strengthen their own self-awareness. We can build a stronger relationship with our kids by letting them know we love them in a way they understand.
No stranger to children and the challenges of raising them, Jill is a mother of two and was an educator and elementary school principal for more than two decades. Jill is a certified facilitator of the Love and Logic™ program and uses its trusted resources to help parents of kids of any age. She partners with More Than SAT in providing group workshops and individual coaching where parents learn strategies to: build healthy relationships with their children, promote good decision-making skills, and prepare children for future success.
Come hear from Jill live at a free parenting workshop, “Using Chores and Allowances to Raise Responsible Kids in an Age of Entitlement,” at the Niles-Maine District Library, 6960 W. Oakton St., Niles, Illinois 2-3 p.m. Saturday, April 7.