The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares that husbands and wives- fathers and mothers- have solemn obligations to love and care for each other and their children, and to teach their children to love and care for each other. Loving and caring in families thus involves much more than the feeling of love. It involves loving actions even at times when we don't feel especially loving.
Recent national studies affirm the importance of love and caring in families. Research shows that expressions of affection toward children reduce problem behaviors and enhance children's development. Love is the single most important principle of parenting. If children do not feel cherished and loved, little else that parents do will have its maximum influence. Expressions of kindness increase family life satisfaction. Husbands' expression of appreciation for their wives is, by far, the strongest predictor of the wives' sense of fairness and satisfaction with how housework and child care are divided in the home.
Strong families notice and share positive aspects of each other. For example, they pay attention to another person's polite behavior or something nice he or she did or said. They notice the talents, skills and achievements, special qualities, and characteristics that make the other person unique. They find ways to be positive even when another family member makes a mistake. They make a conscious effort to develop closeness and show love at home.
It is important that family members learn to speak each other's "love language." Sometimes when we think we are being loving to another family member, he or she may not perceive it that way at all. Consider these examples:
Julie came home from work one day, exhausted as usual. She was greeted enthusiastically by her five-year-old son, James. She knelt down on one knee, pulled her son into a close embrace, and said, "James, I love you!" Then Julie stood up and started into her room, but James surprised her when he said, "Mommy, I don't want you to love me, I want you to play catch with me!"
George got up early one Saturday morning, cleaned the garage, cut the lawn, and planted shrubs-all to please his wife. Then he showered and was about to leave the house when his wife said, "George, the least you could do is kiss me good-bye!"
Here are some ideas for strengthening caring and appreciation in your family:
Find out from your loved ones what communicates love to them, and then make plans to send those messages often through your actions. For example, couples can set up "caring days" where you discuss and agree on eighteen actions (nine each) you find loving and would like to receive from your spouse. These actions must be:
- Specific (such as "Tell me you love me at least once a day").
- Positive (not "Don't do this" or "Stop doing that").
- Small enough to be done on a daily basis (such as "Call me at work during lunch, just to see how I'm doing").
- Not the subject of any recent conflict.
Second, agree to do five of the actions on the Caring Days list each day, regardless of whether or not your spouse follows through. Even if your spouse doesn't follow through right away, be patient and persist in doing the actions.
Third, put the list of actions in a conspicuous place, such as on the refrigerator door. When you receive a requested action from your spouse, place the date next to the specific action. This visual reminder helps reinforce the actions. Persist in doing five actions per day for two weeks, so that sending these messages of love becomes a habit. At the end of two weeks, evaluate how your relationship has changed because of the activity.
You can adapt Caring Days to involve the entire family. For a family night activity on love, have each person make a list of actions that make them feel loved. Share the lists and then post them where everyone can see them. Then begin having Caring Days. Perhaps your preschooler told you that "building sand castles in the sandbox with me" makes her feel loved. Before she asks, take her out to build sand castles.
Write a short love note to encourage someone or express appreciation. Put the note under the person's pillow or in a backpack, briefcase, or purse. Write something like "James, I'm proud of you for working so hard on your spelling words! Love, Dad."
Remember the Power of Touch.
Touch can be a powerful way of showing affection, love, and appreciation. Small children often like to snuggle with their parents. A quick pat, a hug, a kiss, a handclasp, or an arm around the shoulder can say a lot to people of all ages.
"This Coupon Good for Dinner at Your Favorite Restaurant." A gift tailored for one person can be a wonderful way to express affection and appreciation. Consider making gift certificates for each other. Be sure to follow through and do what the certificate promises. One certificate might read: "This certificate entitles you to ONE FREE WEEKEND TRIP TO SEATTLE any weekend in August. Love, You Know Who." Another might read: "This certificate is good for ONE 10-MINUTE BACK-RUB ON REQUEST. Love, Muscles."
Good manners and everyday courtesy to a child or a spouse lets the person know that he or she matters. Treat family members as good friends. Ask children and other family members to do things rather than demand that they do them. Compliment good behavior. Thank family members for their efforts. Ask for opinions. Listen to comments. Avoid saying anything that is unkind or sarcastic.
Use "mental gymnastics" to redefine perceptions of others. Many negative traits are really positive traits carried to the extreme. For example, a person who is stingy with money is only a thrifty person in the extreme. Granted, such a person may need to change. But the point of this exercise is to find the core goodness in others. Select two or three traits of a spouse, child, or other family member that annoy you and see if they can be redefined. Here are some starters:
Talks too much vs. Likes to share with others
- Bossy vs. Leader
- Messy vs. Curious
- Nitpicking vs. Attentive to detail
- Meddlesome vs. Concerned
Make A Note of It.
Invest in a nice address and reminder book. Record birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates. Plan ahead to mail cards or schedule special dinners.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, and Kristi McLane, Research Assistant, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Duncan, S. F. (1999). Building family strengths (MT 9405). Bozeman, MT: Montana State University Extension Service.
- Duncan, S. F. (1994). The activity book: Activities for building family strengths (EB 128). Bozeman, MT: Montana State University Extension Service.
- Duncan, S. F. (2000). Practices for building marriage and family strengths. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 295-303). Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.