Ah, Mother’s Day. Your daughter says, “I love you” and gives you a personally scrawled note about how wonderful you are as both a mother and as a role model. Your husband brings you a tray with coffee, orange juice, strawberries, and pancakes with melted butter and warm syrup; then he cleans the kitchen. Your middle child snuggles up with you and watches TV; your youngest gives you a haphazardly wrapped gift that he picked out himself. Nice. You know it’s nice. You would have liked a gift certificate for me time at a local spa, but this is all quite sweet.
It’s also revealing.
You have hints about the love languages of your entire family. According to therapist Gary Chapman, best-selling author of The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, people grasp the feeling and truth of love in five different ways, which he calls love languages. People tend to “speak” (or show love) in the language they primarily feel.
The daughter appears to speak words of affirmation. For these people, kind words, particularly praise, mean love. Hubby’s language may be acts of service. For him, actions speak louder than words. Physical touch is likely the middle child’s preference: appropriate contact says a lot to her. The youngest’s might be receiving gifts — most people like to give gifts, but a young child tends to speak in the love language he best understands and identifies with. As for you? Yours appears to be quality time. You need undivided attention, to be the focus.
Did you have an “aha” moment when you read Chapman’s five love languages and explanations? With the barest of information to go on, these guesses could be off base, but observing and digging into how your family interacts with others and each other will reveal each of their love languages. Understanding your own love language — and that of your partner and children — does more than ensure thoughtful gifts; making your child feel loved is the foundation for their internal security and will translate directly into their external actions. Love nourishes children, Chapman says, helping them grow into giving, loving, confident, responsible adults.
Our deepest need
Feeling loved is the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth, suggest experts, including Támara Hill, a therapist in Pennsylvania specializing in child and adolescent behavior. A child needs to feel loved to grow confident, to be bold enough to take chances, and to know he isn’t alone in the world, that he has a place.
When children feel unloved, they can perceive a negative message and internalize it, Hill says. These kids then feel worthless, unloved, or misunderstood, and they act out, either consciously or unconsciously. “Kids must feel the adults in their lives get them,” she says.
“I believe that our deepest emotional need is the need to feel loved,” Chapman adds.
That’s why Chapman strongly urges parents to learn the individual love language of each child. Parenting to your child’s love language contributes to your child’s heart-based feeling of being loved rather than a head-based knowledge that she is loved. You can decipher your loved ones’ languages by observing how they interact with others, by requests they make of you, and how they express love to you. And, of course, by taking Chapman’s quizzes.
One simple question
In The 5 Love Languages of Children, his book with parent-child relationship authority Dr. Ross Campbell, Chapman shares examples that show how you can often recognize a young child’s primary love language by how he or she answers one simple question: How do you know your parents love you? A child who responds, “Because they play with me; she does things with me,” is expressing an appreciation for quality time. A child who says her mommy brought her a special shell from her trip to Hawaii is likely expressing her affinity for receiving gifts. A child who says: “She hugs me really tight, and plays with my hair when I go to bed,” probably favors the love language of touch.
Recognizing your child’s love language is similar to knowing your child’s personality type and temperament. Most parents, without realizing it, automatically tailor their interactions to their child’s personality. You know that sitting in a doctor’s waiting room with your introspective child requires only a book or two to keep him occupied. His sister, on the other hand, the one who can’t keep still, who doesn’t walk when she can run, needs at the least Play-doh, but more likely a game of Simon Says with you in the hallway.
When you parent to a child’s temperament, personality, or love language, you accept, embrace, and encourage their individuality. They do not believe they will lose their place in your affection no matter how beautiful the girl down the street is, if their brother gets better grades, or their sister wins a trophy. Instead, they are able to explore their world with more freedom, with the certainty that who they are and who they discover themselves to be is OK — good, even.
To your words-of-affirmation speaker, the note you write telling him what an excellent job he did putting the dishes away gives him the feeling of love. You walk in the rain to help his brother sell all his raffle tickets because he is a native acts-of-service speaker — with a quality-time accent. On some level, they understand your love because they feel it. And it fills them up.
“That’s what I do, not how I love.”
Children aren’t terribly old before they figure out that their parents provide their food, clothes, and shelter; children often figure out that this is a form of love. A parent’s instinctive goal is to satisfy the needs of their child. So providing the basics may meet that goal. But that does not mean it’s your primary way of showing love. Those acts of service aren’t your language. In fact, you may think “That’s what I do, not how I love.” When learning to speak love languages, you should know your own vernacular first — and then you have to figure out your child’s language and make sure the two mesh.
For example, you may be showing your love by getting up to see your child off to school each day even though you work until midnight. That quality time is a loving moment to you, and you believe it is for her as well. But your child’s love language is different. Although that quality time is good — and it has value because children, more than adults, get some degree of sustenance from all love languages — what makes her feel loved is when you cook her a hot breakfast instead of watching her pour her own cereal. You’re proud of yourself for being awake and her for being independent; yet she would prefer that you make bacon and eggs. It may look like anger or annoyance, but really she feels deprived. It’s the kind of miscommunication that leaves a child feeling empty, uncertain, and less confident.
You have to recognize that this demonstration of your love may not make them feel loved, and that feeling is important to human development.
“Just love your children”
Some of the best parenting advice is “just love your children.” Truly great advice, but “just” makes it seem so easy; love and loving can be complex. Case in point: teenagers. Of course they still need to feel love, but you may have to be clever to provide it and sharp-eyed to see it received, Chapman says. And if you’re trying to figure out their love language, it can be more difficult because teens tend to be more defensive, secretive, and even manipulative, says Campbell. It takes a lot of digging through attitude, but teens have the same need to be filled.
Many people, (adults, not just children), can’t easily describe how they give love or what makes them feel loved. But it’s worth trying to understand. Children who feel loved are more likely to grow up confident, Hill says — to be bold enough to take chances, to be persistent, and to be less afraid of failure and rejection. It helps to know their love language well because the opposite side of the coin is neglecting or abusing that language, which is especially damaging to children’s budding and fragile self-esteem. “I love you but …” could be devastating to a child who’s primary language is words of affirmation.
Back to you on your special day. You may not get the spa day, but you savor your pancakes, nuzzle your cuddly kid, display your youngest’s gift prominently, and write a note back to your oldest. It’s not the easiest thing for you — taking time to write a thoughtful note — but you do it because you know your kid.