Giving and receiving love is essential for well-being. Find out how to show children the meaning of love, and how they can share it with others.
By Liza Finlay
Love. It’s such a great feeling. It’s so great that it’s spawned songs and sonnets (and a remarkable number of Nicholas Sparks movies). As parents, we get to experience love in a whole new, amazing way. Yup, being in love is fabulous. But doing love (think, “love, the verb”) is even better. And it turns out that the ability to “do” love is an essential skill you can pass on to children for their long-term well-being.
As parents, it’s pretty intuitive to feel love for our children. What’s not so instinctive is putting that feeling into action in a way they will understand. Yet, delivering an understanding of love to children is as essential to their well being as providing adequate nutrition. When we think about love as something we do, and not just a feeling we get, we all (parents and children alike) enjoy a whole host of physical and mental health benefits. Let’s break it down:
The first thing your baby does when it’s born is cry. That cry is your child’s first appeal for parental attention. And what do you do? You come – you soothe, you cuddle, you love. That attentive response leads to what we therapists call secure attachment.
Infants who enjoy that secure attachment have a sense of safety that allows them to trust others and form intimate relationships into adulthood. Consistently showing love, beginning in infancy, promotes the essential connection that allows children to stop worrying and start flourishing.
As they grow, a steady diet of unconditional love – the kind that isn’t conditional on how they perform or what they do or don’t do – assures children of their innate worth (the bedrock of self-esteem). Kids who are secure in the knowledge that they can “fail” and still be recipients of parental love have the security they need to risk, to dare, and to put themselves out there.
It’s just as important (and satisfying) to give love, as it is to get it. In fact there is abundant data proving that giving is an even better predictor of mental health than receiving. The work of American psychologist Arthur Nikelly reveals that community participation and socially interested living even has a moderating effect on disease outcomes.
Despite the fact that we are wired for empathy – mirror neurons in our brains mimic, or mirror, the emotional experience of others – we still need practice. Kids need to flex those empathy muscles. They need to learn to “do” love. Here are 5 easy ways I encourage clients in my practice to put love into action at home:
It’s easy to equate service with love – to think that the more we do for our children, the more we’re showing them love. I’ve found that allowing children to go into the world not knowing to do things for themselves can actually teach them to take acts of love for granted, or not notice them at all.
Allowing children to do for themselves boosts their self-esteem and also shows them how to appreciate the occasional favor or helping hand as the act of love it is.
Build their emotional intelligence by making them aware of how their loving actions affect others. For example, “Mrs. Smith gave a big smile when you held that door for her,” and, “When I was sick and you brought me a blanket, I felt so loved.”
By making participation in household chores a daily expectation you send the message that their contributions count. While toddlers may not be able to do much heavy lifting, age-appropriate jobs can include tidying their clothes and toys, or washing vegetables while you prepare dinner.
Involve your children in decisions around giving to others. Toddlers can help pick out friends’ birthday gifts or treats for family gatherings, for example. For older kids, you can have them participate by looking for volunteer opportunities they can join you in.
Have some fun dreaming up small, simple gestures of love and affection. For toddlers, this can include decorating a coloring sheet to give a family member, or smiling and waving at your neighbor. Little things like these can make a world of difference in someone’s day! Random acts of kindness can also be anonymous –showing children that recognition is not required is a great lesson for life.
Expressing love for our kids and teaching them to share love with others are important forms of emotional nutrition for the whole family. Not only will “doing” love help nourish your family’s happiness now, it is something your children will take with them as they grow, and teach their own families one day.
Liza Finlay is a Toronto-based psychotherapist. In her practice she works with parents, teens and couples. She contributes regularly to todaysparent.com. Liza is an associate professor at the Adler Graduate School where she instructs future therapists. She holds a master’s degree in counselling psychology.