My husband and I are raising three elementary school-age kids and to say I love our kids doesn’t even scratch the surface.
As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure no parent in the history of the world has loved their children as much as I love mine. And I would bet billions of parents could say the same as they describe the love they have for their own children. Parental love is wholly unique and wholly ubiquitous all at the same time.
But loving our kids and our kids feeling loved is not the same thing. There is a difference. Of all the parenting books I’ve read, I keep one on my nightstand as a constant reminder of this difference: "The Five Love Languages of Children," by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell.
According to the authors, in order for a child to feel genuinely loved by their parents, parents must speak their child’s love language. The premise of the book is that each person expresses and receives love through one of five communication styles:
- Quality time
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of service
- Physical touch
While children need to be spoken to in each of these love languages, Chapman and Campbell help parents figure out which primary love language meets their child’s deepest emotional need. If a parent doesn’t speak that language, the child will not feel completely loved, even though the parent may have demonstrated love in other ways. For example, if you are showering your child with gifts, but their primary love language is quality time, your gifts may not be received in the loving manner in which you are giving them.
I was first introduced to "The Five Love Languages" concept when my husband and I were engaged. We were assigned Chapman’s "The Five Love Languages" during our pre-marriage class. It was then that I learned my husband and I express and receive love very differently.
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I was (and am) so thankful for the heads up on that one. We had to learn to communicate love in a way the other person understood – not just the way we as individuals interpreted love. As we’ve added children into the mix, I was elated to find Chapman partnered with Campbell to introduce another book focused on children’s love languages.
My primary love language is acts of service – this is how I show and receive love. I feel loved when someone goes out of their way for me in an act of service. My mom just came up for a 10-day visit and she cleaned out and organized almost every closet, drawer and pantry in our home. I’m now recommending her for sainthood and hold her service as one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me. This act was translated to me as love.
In my particular stage of motherhood, I’m performing acts of service on a minute-by-minute basis. Food prep, cooking, laundry, carpool, field trips, extra-curricular activities, bedtime routines – everything I’m doing is an act of service performed out of love. Therefore, these acts should be translated as “I love you,” right?
Wouldn’t you know it, not one person in the rest of our family has the primary love language of acts of service. Not one. Instead, my husband and kids all speak a different primary love language than me. It’s my job (and joy) to identify their love languages and communicate love in a way that fills them emotionally – even if it feels like I’m speaking a foreign (love) language.
Our 10-year-old daughter’s primary love language is words of affirmation. She beams when she receives verbal or written accolades like, “I love you just the way God made you”; “You are handling this tough situation beautifully”; “You are such a caring and loving big sister.”
In turn, she is also quick to hand out encouraging words to friends and family members. Some of my life’s greatest treasures are letters I’ve received from her. With words of affirmation as her primary love language, I have to be on the lookout for how to build her up with words and realize how a flippant comment can tear her down and make her feel unloved.
Our 8-year-old son’s primary love language is physical touch. Wrestling, cuddling, playing football (he smirks when I call it soccer) as a family – these are the primary ways he receives love. Unfortunately, after all of my acts of service, I don’t always want to play soccer. But knowing that the physicality of us all being together communicates love to him, I take to the pitch (note: my husband and son speak a lesser known love language, English Premier League).
Physical touch is also our youngest daughter’s primary love language. At 6 years old, she likes to read to me while sitting on my lap. She often takes my hands and buries her face in them just to be covered by me. She’s also been known to crawl up and cup the face of the person she’s talking to. At the expense of personal space, she loves up close. Her ways are not my ways, but I’ve learned to provide extra opportunities for snuggles, playing in my hair and piggybacks.
Learning my family’s love languages and speaking them has been a game-changer in our house. As a parent I’m going to make mistakes, seek forgiveness and wish for do-overs. But one thing I want to make sure I get right is loving my people well – even if it means speaking a foreign love language.
Julie Hildebrand is a wife and mother of three who writes about parenting, marriage and faith.
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