We all know that children need to hear how they are special and loved. I can't imagine running into a sentient parent who would argue otherwise. Yet through the hustle and bustle of our lives we somehow forget to do a quality job of verbally affirming their unique gifts and talents. And by affirming I do not simply mean the generic and ubiquitous, I love you. Sure, that's a great place to start, but let's maybe think a little bit harder. We love pizza, that cooking show, our favorite running shoes and the funny face our dog makes when caught licking their nether regions. Do we honestly think our children understand the immeasurable worth of their individuality and our consistent and unconditional favor upon them when we lump our sentiments together with a brand of beer?
Assuming you love your children, I would like to pitch out a few ways you can more clearly share the intensity of your affection so there are no questions at the end of the day. After all, one of the worst things I can imagine is having my children question my abounding devotion to them.
1. I love you
But Trisha, you just said we needed to go beyond this simple phrase. Yes. Yes I did. However, our children do need to hear that we love them. Perhaps the better point to be made here is that we should stop loving everything else. When our love for our children is not on par with our "love" for that winning sports team we are much more accurate in communicating authentic affection.
2. I am proud of who you are as a person.
I believe one of the best kept secrets for healthy relationships with our children is the assurance that our pride in who they are is not the same as our pride in what they accomplish. Is it good and right to be proud of their test score, job promotion or successful project? Of course. Is it good that our children only hear those words in connection with that test score, job promotion or successful project? Absolutely not. Children naturally crave their parents' approval and when we attach it to their actions more than their existence we do a grave disservice to their identity.
3. I really like you.
We are our children's first friends. What person does not like to know that their friends like them? Different from telling your child that you love them, which can come off dry and unimaginative if we only ever say it after their teeth are brushed but before we remind them to pee, speaking these 4 words conveys genuine regard. It helps your child grow in security since we associate liking with choice. And what child doesn't want to feel like their parents would choose them even if they were given another option?
4. You are beautiful/handsome.
The beauty (pun intended) of this sentiment is best seen when it is shared during particularly difficult seasons. When we dress up and take the time to groom ourselves it isn't shocking to hear someone compliment us. Our children are probably accustomed to hearing us, as well as others, praise their looks when attired in Sunday best. How often are they accustomed to hearing these tender words when you know they feel awkward with puberty, burdened with sickness or marked with pain? We tell them that true beauty comes from within, but then only ever compliment them on it when they are looking good. This appears somewhat counterproductive to me.
5. I miss you when we are apart.
My children long to be important to me. Because of the nature of parenting it is easy to fall into patterns that tend to communicate how burdensome they are and how much I can't wait to get away. Taking the night off for a date or movie with a friend shows in our countenance. Don't think your kids don't notice. They do. And it yells that time away is more enjoyable than time with them. Emotional health comes from the realization that it is appropriate for mom and dad to have time away, but with the security of knowing they are genuinely missed during those absences. Telling your child you missed them immediately upon your return home is great, but it can often be lost in the flurry of the moment. Speak these words to your child when you aren't going anywhere and watch their face immediately brighten.
6. I believe in you.
We all need to have someone backing us through this thing called life. Our children are no different. So, we should be our children's number one cheerleader. If we want to help shape adults who will be capable of taking initiative and standing for things not popular but right then begin saying this now.
Every child has a destiny. They reach it either by overcoming your silence or by depending upon your encouragement.
7. You are a joy to me.
To bring joy to another is probably one of the most rewarding experiences in life. That warm feeling when someone laughs at your joke, appreciates your hard work on their behalf, or gains tangible relief from your efforts is amazing. Give it regularly to your loved ones. The gratitude expressed here goes far beyond a mere Thank You. It speaks of a depth of regard wholly pleasing to you.
8. Please share with me.
The only way this one will work is if you say it and then listen. Listen. Don't multitask chores. Listen. Don't interrupt with time saving suggestions for the story. Listen. And then ask questions about what you heard because listening is not the same thing as sitting next to them and thinking about other stuff. Let me be frank, this one is hard. The million stories, pictures, dreams and "jokes" our children want to share with us can seem inexhaustible. And I am not suggesting that we stop what we are doing every time our child demands our attention. On the contrary that promotes a level of selfishness entirely counterproductive to what most of us are working towards in our parenting efforts! But children need to have time and space to communicate on their level. Little minds work faster than little mouths. How terribly painful to try and share a thought that simply won't. get. out. only to be told to hurry up, stop mumbling or ignored. Make regular moments in your schedule to sit quietly and ask your child to share their heart. They will. And then you will not only know their heart but have it.
9. You are exceptional at...
Find what it is and give them praise. Speak often of the things they are gifted in so they begin to see their own ability through your eyes. Openly share of your regard for their talents to others while they are present. Embarrass them with your compliments. No one on earth will ever take the job of providing unconditional encouragement the way you can as their parent. More than a spouse, friend, boss or therapist you hold the power to esteem their abilities in ways that matter. We hold authority in our children's lives. They look up to us and naturally accept what we say as truth. When we boldly proclaim their strengths (even the strength to recognize a weakness) we secure in them a lifeline to the things that make them special in this world.
10. I am sorry. Please forgive me.
I make mistakes. I mess up. I say things that are wrong. I demand humility from my children and call them to account when they do these things with me or with their siblings. I must be willing to show humility in return or I risk creating a bitter relationship with my adult children. There is nothing more powerful to a child than a parent who is willing to admit when they did it wrong. Kids inherently value justice and they easily recognize what is fair and what is not. Sometimes the lesson on fairness is that it isn't always fair. However, this is never the place for that lesson to be learned. I lose credibility and I hurt my children immensely when I am unwilling to seek their forgiveness. Contrary to the belief that we undermine our authority when we apologize the truth is that we clearly establish the pattern for mutual respect necessary for a healthy lifelong relationship. I don't want to just play at intimacy with my growing children.
My prayer is that we all grow in seeing the privilege of parenting our gifts from God so that we can experience the satisfying joy of watching healthy, stable people enter into a lifetime of valuable contribution to this world.