When Dr. Natasha Sharma cuddles her two sons, they know that she’s expressing her love. But, what about when she asks them to brush their teeth?
“At the end of the night, sometimes I don’t want to get up and make sure they’re brushing,” the parenting expert told HuffPost Canada. “But we do that because we love them.”
The implied love in everything parents do can get lost in the daily shuffle. Grown-ups and kids alike tend to assume everyone feels cared in the same ways they do, which can pose a problem ― affection from one could get lost in translation if the other party isn’t receptive.
It’s through feeling loved by their parents and watching how their parents love others that kids develop their relationship skills they learn to identify the different ways someone can make another feel loved. As Sharma puts it, expressing love is a monkey-see, monkey-do situation.
This is where love languages can help. We tend to think of the five love languages ― physical touch, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, spending time together, and acts of service ― in romantic terms, but they’re just as applicable to our family relationships. They’re helpful tools for parents who want their kids to know that showing someone you love them is just as fulfilling as feeling loved, and can be done in many ways.
Here’s how you can teach your kids to express love by modelling different love languages, and by guiding them on how they can do it themselves.
Navigating cuddles respectfully
Cuddles, tickles, and hugs are obvious signs of affection: babies learn they’re loved through touch and is the first sensation they seek for comfort. Science shows that kids who get cuddles grow up happier.
Sharma, the inventor of the Kindness Journal, said kids receive great benefits from being positively touched and held.
Some kids adore physical touch and can’t help touching everyone they see. If this sounds familiar, you don’t want to discourage them; Family therapist Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio told Fatherly that parents should emphasize physical contact isn’t bad, doing it without permission is.
“People are born innately understanding that positive physical affection is loving ... most children crave that,” Sharma said, but she noted that it’s not everyone’s preference; some kids, like those on the autism spectrum, might not prefer certain types of touch.
How to model physical affection with kids: Using your words before action first is, ironically, a good start. When they’re old enough, it’s good to ask kids what level of touch is OK and from whom, as bear-hugs from immediate family could be more welcome than those from extended family.
This not only teaches them that personal bubbles should be respected, it encourages them to know no act of intimacy is mandatory.
Teaching kids how to express it: With young kids, getting them to practice asking for permission shows courtesy for the other person. This can look like asking them to request a hug from a friend. Should they be rejected, encourage your kid to fall back on non-physical alternatives, like blowing a kiss or giving a thumbs-up.
Saying “I love you” mindfully
Unlike with adult relationships, there’s no wrong time to tell kids you love them and vice versa. However, there can be wrong ways to say it. Parents should avoid using “I love you” as a manipulation tactic or as a reward to hear when a kid does well; this talk doesn’t model unconditional love for kids and can warp how they verbalize affection in orders. If it’s conditional, it’s not love, as HuffPost writer Sheryl Paul puts it.
That’s why Sharma said telling a kid they’re loved, even when you’re mad or disappointed, is necessary.
“It’s very important to follow up that conversation, that serious conversation of discipline or disciplinary action, with a loving statement,” she said.
How to model words of affection with kids: Communicating how we feel with others is a form of information-sharing and helps the speaker process how they feel too. Words cut to the chase and make clear what was once only implied. Parents who compliment each other, their kids, and others de-mystify themselves for their kids: hearing what their parents feel gives kids insight on how their parents feel, which they could only guess at before.
But if one parent struggles with saying “I love you,” that’s not the end of the world. As Slate agony aunt Michelle Herman writes to a woman whose wife worried about her non-verbal husband, a kid can pick up on the different personalities adults have and take different lessons away from their world-views.
“You are going to be the parent who demonstrates that emotions have names. Your husband will demonstrate that not everything has to be said in order to be conveyed,” Herman wrote. “And your child will learn that there are different ways to express yourself—not just different ways to show love, but also different ways to be.”
Besides saying “I love you” to your kids often and with feeling, there are other phrases they’ll take to heart. “It makes me happy being with you” and “Seeing you puts a smile on my face” will get across how much you admire them just for being themselves.
And sharing loving words doesn’t need to be done face-to-face. Kids will be tickled pink to read them on hand-written notes in their lunchboxes and spelled out on refrigerator magnets. These methods will make them feel special, even when you’re not there.
It’s also important that kids know that this can go two ways. The next time you leave a handwritten note in your kid’s lunch, include a pen and a notepaper so they can pay it forward.
Teaching kids to express it: Sharma notes that boys and girls often get socialized to express love differently; girls have an easier time expressing love verbally than boys do. She said she’s made sure her sons, ages three and six, aren’t shamed when they articulate how they feel.
One way parents can consciously encourage verbal expressions of love is through meditative exercises with their kids.
Dr. Ashley Miller, co-author of What To Say To Kids When Nothing Seems To Work, is a big proponent of mindful parenting and loving-kindness meditation. This practice emphasizes saying caring mantras, which been proven to improve an individual’s ability to process their emotions. By consciously saying a mantra, a child learns love can be directed in all directions, including inward; self-affirmations can be just as rewarding to hear.
“May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be strong,” Miller gives as an example of a common mantra that carries significant meaning. “You can teach kids to send good wishes to themselves, someone they’re thankful for, someone they feel neutral about, and someone they feel tension with.”
Watch: more adults and children are practicing yoga. Story continues below.
Another excercise is the “compli-mat,” which kids can share with siblings and friends whenever they need a reminder of how many people cherish them.
Acts of service shouldn’t feel like chores
Changing diapers, cooking dinners, and helping out around the house are typical acts of service, but speaking this love language takes more than cleaning up. What makes an act of service meaningful is its no-strings approach; The giver is motivated to make the recipient feel special, which teaches the giver that making someone they care for feel good can be its own reward.
“A loving action is effort, and showing love is effort,” Sharma notes.
How to model acts of affection with kids: Grand gestures aren’t necessary to show someone you care. The little favours you do for others, like watering someone’s plants, show you care about all the ordinary parts of their life.
“You don’t need to move heaven and earth for a partner who has the acts of service love language, just put effort into your actions,” dating expert Demetrius Figueroa told Bustle.
Chicago-based blogger Laura from Lalymom suggests parents engage in acts like fixing a broken toy or volunteering at their child’s school.
Parents already put effort into everything they do to care for their kids, and yet kids may not appreciate all the things you do until later in life. This is where verbally pointing out what a loving action is would be useful, Sharma said. Pointing out when you do something out of love and vice versa will give them an idea of what motivates acts of service performed for and by them.
“Dialoguing with kids early around why we do these things is really important,” she said.
Teaching kids to express it: Your child will see tangible effects of acts of kindness through work they see making a difference and that they enjoy performing, PBS recommends. Giving puppies baths at the local animal shelter or cleaning up your favourite park can combine satisfaction in a job well-done as well as time spent doing something fun.
And while love shouldn’t feel like a chore, doing chores for other family members can be rewarding acts of service. If you encourage them to help out on a sibling’s task or take over for their dishwashing duties every once in a while, it’ll make acts of kindness feel less like assignments, and more like a surprise.
As Sharma noted, parents should emphasize how “doing the loving” feels different than receiving love. After the family activity, parents can ask kids what they liked the most about it and how it made them feel.
Gift-giving should be thoughtful
Who doesn’t like getting a present? Turns out, giving them is scientifically more pleasing. American researchers found that the joy felt when gift-giving is more satisfying in the long-run than getting a gift.
How to model gifts of affection with kids: If you want to model generosity to your kids, give them gifts that are meaningful and personalized — they don’t need to be costly. Toys in their favourite colour and books about subjects they’ve expressed interest in can show that because you love them, you’re paying attention to their likes and dislikes. Gifts that are homemade can be just as valuable, too.
Need to buy a gift for someone? Bring kids along on your trip. Watching how you make your decisions while shopping and potentially having them present for the gift-giving moment can give them an insider look on the joy of generosity.
Teaching kids to express it: Around gift-giving holidays like Christmas, kids spend a lot of time thinking about what they want to get. Reverse that mind-set by asking them to brainstorm gifts they can get for others. Get them to list potential gifts for loved ones and include why each gift would be enjoyed. This encourages them to reflect on the gift’s meaning, for both the giver and the receiver.
Spending time together
Quality time may not have the immediate wow factor gift-giving does, but the best examples have lasting power. Many cherished childhood memories involve routines; a dad who sang lullabies to his kids every night or a weekly fishing trip with Mom will be remembered for a lifetime.
Emphasis on quality; your kid will pick up if time spent with others is actually time spent on your phone. As child development researchers note, phone-distracted parents impair the cognitive growth of their kids. Kids aren’t able to communicate their needs when the person they’re talking to is absorbed with what’s in their hands. When they feel ignored, kids withdraw internally or act out to get the attention they crave.
How to model quality time with kids: Carving out time with others, simply just to see them, sends an important message to your young ones.
Sharma noted that being there for no other reason than enjoying someone’s company packs an expressive punch. Actions like waiting at the bus stop until someone’s ride arrives or joining someone’s grocery trip shows that someone’s presence alone is special.
You can emphasize the importance of quality time with loved ones by scheduling it. Having a one-on-one routine with kids, as well as with other loved ones, makes the time spent doing mundane tasks feel much more extraordinary.
Teaching kids to express it: Parents are often the initiators of quality time, as they’re usually the schedule managers. If you want your kids to express this love language, give them the opportunity to join in on their loved ones’ schedules. For example, should a sibling take dance classes, they can ask their sibling if they can come with them every so often. Instead of being the one to arrange weekly get-togethers to a grandparent, invite your kid to call their grandparents and find out when they can be visited.
Challenges are a fun way for the whole family to spend quality time together, too. No Guilt Mom recommends calendars like 30 Days of Quality Time, a month-long list of activities that families can enjoy.
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