It doesn’t matter if she is speaking with a make-believe doctor or the President of the United States – she is conditioned to end all conversations with this assertion.
It’s no surprise, I suppose, since her father and I say it to her in nearly every instance: Leaving for work, dropping her at preschool, hanging up the phone, tucking her into bed. Love you! Love you! Love you! Love you! We’re merely doing our jobs as parents, letting our child know she is loved each and every chance we get. And yet the frequency with which we say it, and then the way we hear her repeating those simple yet powerful words, makes me rethink the ways in which I attempt to share my love for my children.
Child psychologists have long known that for a child to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem, they must first feel that they are both loved and lovable. My goal as a parent is to nurture my children’s burgeoning self-esteem, since a positive self-image is so tremendously vital in a child developing into a successful, confident adult. So I tell Elle I love her morning, noon, and night. She, in turn, goes on to spurt “Love you!” to the checkout person as we leave the convenience store.
Perhaps saying those words as often as we do isn’t exactly driving home what we really mean.
What we really mean is that our hearts beat in rhythm with hers, soaring in her successes and breaking in her disappointments. We really mean that she and her sister are the most precious elements of our daily existence, regardless of the cunning ways in which they push our every button and grate on our every nerve. What we really mean is that our life has been immeasurably enriched, our souls consummately nourished, because they exist.
Yet my 4-year-old would likely to go cross-eyed, were I to say these things to her, and so I say “Love you!” instead. And it becomes clear that those two words simply cannot contain the entirety of what I really mean when I say them.
So how do I express to my children my deep, all-encompassing love for them, without the monotony of repetition so diluting the message? Diluting it to the point that they repeat those words to made-up playmates and absolute strangers as effortlessly as if they were saying “Have a good day” or “Happy holidays.”
With it being the holiday season, there is of course the compulsion to pile the gifts high under our Christmas tree, therein “showing” my kids how much I love them. Yet I’m reminded, quickly, that no child (or myself, for that matter) has ever felt loved because of a wealth of material things.
I realize that what I need to do to express my love for my kids isn’t much different from what others have done for me, over the course of my life, to make me feel loved. What has made me feel the most loved and cherished has never been found inside a prettily wrapped box. Nor has it been found hiding in a well-timed assertion of a few admittedly powerful words. Rather, it has been found in what is shared wholly and fully, without reservation: The sense that I am cherished unconditionally by those who love me, for who I am, because they take the time to be with me when they can. The sense that I am important to them, and thus deserving of their attention.
This time of year is rife with attention-sucking and energy-draining pursuits; endless shopping lists. Insane holiday meal menus. Jam-packed social schedules. And to them, this year, I send my regrets. Because this Christmas, I’m expressing my love for my kids through the simple act of being with them, wholly and fully and genuinely, as much as I can.
After all, telling a child you love her is merely words spoken. It’s how you live with her, day after day, that ultimately proves this point.