The Family: A Proclamation to the World states: "Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness" (¶ 6).
It's no accident that the Proclamation lists "love" first among parenting duties-nurturing love is the most important characteristic of good parenting. It's so important that researchers sometimes call it the "super-factor" of parenting. Good nurturing makes children feel loved and cherished, and researchers have found that without that feeling, there's little else parents can do to make up for it.
Urie Bronfenbrenner, a renowned expert on child development, says every child needs parents who are crazy about him or her-an "irrational relationship." Children are wired to "fall in love" with their parents, and they deserve parents who fall in love back.
Beyond the obvious benefits of nurturing love, research shows that loving and nurturing parenting is linked to better child behavior at all ages. Nurturing parents build strong bonds with their children, providing them with a sense of security that helps them grow into confident and loving people.
How can you be a more loving and nurturing parent? Here are some ideas:
Learn your child's love language. Each person feels love in a different way. A wise parent carefully studies how a child likes to receive love, and then sends love in that way often. Without this care, actions that a parent might think are loving can be perceived as unloving. For example, one mother came home from a long day at work, met her little boy at the front door, ruffled his hair, told him "I love you!" and walked to her room. He followed her and replied, "Mommy, I don't want you to love me, I want you to play catch with me!"
In another example, a father invited his teenaged son to hunt big game in Montana. The father thought the expedition together would be a great way to spend time with his son and show his love. But what the son really wanted from his father was less dramatic - he just wanted his dad to go with him occasionally to a nearby reservoir and watch the ducks take off.
How can parents learn their child's love language? One way, according to parent educator Wally Goddard at the University of Arkansas, is simply to notice ways you've already shown love that your child asks for more of. One father says his children love their outings with him one at a time. They frequently ask, "When are we going on our one-on-one?" His youngest daughter is emphatic about wanting to go swimming for their time together. By honoring her request, he shows his love for her in one of the ways she can best receive it.
You can also learn about your child's love language by noticing how she or he shows love, according to Goddard. Children often show love in the way they like to receive it. Or you might try recalling when you felt especially loved by someone and identify what that person did, then treat your child similarly.
You can also take the direct approach-ask your children what you do or say that helps them feel loved. Answers might include hugs, bedtime stories, one-on-one outings, midnight pancakes and conversation, playing a game together, or a special gift.
Have I told you lately… Keep a record of your loving actions toward your child. Write his or her name at the top of a 3x5 card, then write the following questions and answer them:
What have I done lately that really helped Katy feel loved?
How does Katy prefer to receive messages of love?
What are some different ways I can send messages that communicate love to Katy in ways she can best feel it?
What will I do this week to show Katy my love?
Speak kindly to your children. Compliment their good behavior. Say "please" and "thank you." Don't say anything demeaning or sarcastic. Even good-humored sarcasm is easily misunderstood by children and can result in unintended hurt feelings. Instead of saying "Can't you leave the dog alone?" say, "Please leave the dog alone." Instead of saying, "Will you get out of my way?" say, "Excuse me, I need to get by."
Express appreciation. Tell your children how much you appreciate them. Draw attention to their talents and good behaviors: "The table looks great! Thank you for setting it so nicely." Or "I can always count on you to help me out. Thanks."
Write love notes. Write short notes of love and encouragement. Slip them into your children's lunchboxes or backpacks. Examples include:
Thanks for helping your sister clean up her room.
That was a good idea you had for our family vacation.
You're special to me.
Will you come with me to the store when you get home from school? I enjoy having you with me.
Remember the power of touch. Don't hesitate to give your child a loving hug, comforting hand-squeeze, or congratulatory pat on the back.
Be a friend. Spend time playing with your children and doing things with them that they enjoy. If you need to, schedule time with your children in your planner: "8 pm: Read stories with Rachel," "2 pm: Go biking with John."
Declare a love week. Have everyone in your family write down (or draw) what makes them feel loved. Maybe your first-grader feels loved when you read to him. Maybe your teenage daughter feels loved when you go with her to the library. Post the ideas in the house where everyone will see them. Then, every day for the next week, encourage each family member to do something for another family member that helps them feel loved. Even very small efforts can yield big results.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Goddard, H. W., & Morgan, M. (1995). The great self mystery. Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.