Of all the topics I thought we’d hash out here on Fussbucket, the one thing I never thought we’d be discussing is whether or not to tell your kids you love them. I assumed that was a given. But last Sunday I read this essay in the NY Times’ Modern Love column, which I love, (there I said it!) by a mother who willingly declares her love for her one-year old son in the newspaper, but doesn’t want to tell him directly.
“I never say it because it never comes up,” she says in the essay. “I can’t even imagine when I would say it.” It seems part of her discomfort is not finding the right moment to tell her son she loves him. She doesn’t want to say it when he does something well, because she doesn’t want him to think that her love is conditional. Other times, when he’s just doing regular kid-stuff, it feels awkward to her to burst out with an “I love you,” she says.
Instead she relies on the assumption that her child knows he is loved because of the way she treats him. “If there is one thing my child knows, this total center of my universe, this toddler who practically gets applause when he passes gas, it’s that he is loved.”
The essay was prompted by a question from an acquaintance. The writer was asked if her son had said I love you to her. She realized then that it wasn’t likely her son would say it to her, since she never says it to him. And neither does her husband.
Over the next few days I noticed mothers everywhere showering their children with I-love-yous. After a toddler successfully flung herself down the slide at the playground, I watched her mother scoop her up, plant a kiss on her cheek and chirp, “I love you!”
I must confess that sounds like me. I tell my kids I love them all the time. I say because I feel it and I want to express it. It’s a happy thing.
…I began paying more attention to the words that came out of my mouth, checking to see if any of them happened to be “I love you.” And it turned out that I did say “I love you,” but only after yelling at Milo.
The sequence of events always adhered to the following pattern: Milo would do something like attempt to shove the cat’s tail into a fan or eat dust bunnies, I would yell “No!” and Milo would burst into tears. Then I would hug him and say, “It’s O.K., I still love you, just don’t put crayons up your nose/lick batteries/decorate the kitchen floor with flour.” As I noticed this pattern, I began to wonder if I was depriving my son of some deep emotional knowledge. Would he grow up to think that “I love you” is something to be said only after yelling?
Well, maybe. I don’t know. At the very least, he’ll grow up knowing “I love you” is not something worth saying unless it’s attached to some other part of a sentence. This reminds me of my three-year old Sage telling my husband and I on different occasions, “I like you, but…” The sentence would trail off and we would be left saying, “But? But what???”
The only question is whether Milo knows that I love him, and I think he does, inasmuch as a toddler can know what love is. At the very least he knows that he likes to sit in my lap while I rock him before bedtime, that I will watch out for him when bigger kids shove him around in the sandbox, and that when he bonks his head I will kiss it and try to make him feel better.
Can’t you just stick in an “I love you” right there? Kid bonks head, parent provides a kiss and a hug and a “I love you, buddy.” Not so tough, really.
After I read this essay I grabbed Sage who was running by, gave him a big mama bear hug and told him I love him. Then I asked him if he liked it when I told him that. He smiled for real and said, “Yes!” That was all I needed to know.
So what do you think? Do kids need to hear it or do actions speak louder than words?