Q: What are some of the best ways to lavishly and generously love our kids?
A: If there is a phrase wise mothers have been seeking to better define since the beginning of time, it’s balance. How can I help my child develop healthy self-esteem without raising a brat who thinks she is better than everyone else? How can I teach my son to stick up for himself without turning him into an arrogant bully? How can I lavish love on my child and support her interests, but also help her acknowledge a true sense of her strengths and weaknesses? When it comes to loving our children, balance becomes a virtue.
Keep It Age Appropriate
My nine-year-old son Michael is at the precarious stage between wanting more independence and still needing my approval. When he was small, it was natural to hug, kiss, tickle, and touch him while calling him cute names. As he matures and grows, those easy actions and familiar phrases can start to feel more awkward (on both sides), especially when we are in public.
In , Christ calls out to the children and welcomes them into his lap. But yelling, “Go get ‘em, honey!” before my son runs out to the playground or covering him in kisses before his art class was not being well received. How could I let my growing son know how deeply and unconditionally I loved him? How could I show him love in a way that really connected with him? I needed to find nonverbal ways to communicate my love without embarrassing him. A pat on the back or tousling hair can be signs of affection, but I wanted a more specific way to tell him, “You are an awesome kid!” without making him wish I would drop him off for baseball practice a block and a half away.
Michael has always responded favorably to encouragement, so I thought about different ways I might be able to encourage him and help him have a good day. My friend Danielle mentioned her mother gave her three quick squeezes on her hand, arm, or shoulder as a discreet way of saying “I. Love. You.” I now do this with my own son and—victory!—he almost always returns three squeezes to me. Together we have invented our own secret love language. I know I can send him off into his expanding world with my affection, and he knows he can “check in” with me without fearing teasing or eye rolls from his friends.
When we love on our kids, we need to keep their age and unique personality in mind. For example, what works for a preschooler may completely backfire for an elementary school kid. For awhile, I’d been interpreting my son’s resistance to my affection as arrogance, but now I know it’s not that. Michael wasn’t outgrowing his need for me to lavish my physical and verbal love on him, nor was he was becoming “too cool” for his mom. He just needed my love to be communicated in a more age-appropriate way. By doing so, not only do I express my love for him, but I also respect his boundaries and changing needs.
Keep It Simple
When I was a new mom, I read an article explaining there are only about 940 Saturdays between a child’s birth and his 18th birthday. Naturally, panic ensued. I must make every weekend special! I thought. There are memories to make! We are already behind schedule! I quickly instituted a plan guaranteed to make every weekend a Hallmark-worthy occasion. Or so I thought.
As a stay-at-home mom with two little ones, I insisted that we go out to dinner every Friday night to make it special and memorable. Nothing fancy, just a family-friendly place where I could relax—except I couldn’t relax: there was always a wait to be seated, so I had to watch my boys like ticking time bombs, and my husband and I couldn’t have a decent conversation in the meantime. Not to mention we were spending a lot of money! I had a vision in my head and expectations in my heart of what a loving, happy family should do to connect on a Friday night. It was hard for me to admit my idea wasn’t working . . . but it wasn’t.
After an exhausting evening at Applebee’s, I called it quits. My plan for building awesome memories jam-packed with love and bonding was a failure. But then the following Friday I ordered a pizza, and we watched a movie. The next week, breakfast for dinner and Legos. I finally had the relaxing Friday night I was looking for! I had invested so heavily in what I thought a loving family should look like that I had forgotten to actually be loving.
Yes, we want to create memories with our children, but what we think will be important to them and what actually is memorable often end up being two different things. My kids, thankfully, don’t remember the argument my husband and I had on our way home from Applebee’s that fateful evening, but they do remember “French Toast Fridays.” says, “And do everything in love.” Time spent snuggling while watching cartoons, taking walks in the park, playing board games, and making and eating homemade pizza bagels for dinner all count. Patterns of love and togetherness can take the simplest forms. You don’t have to make every weekend an over-the-top celebration to ground your children in the love and security of your family.
Keep It Honest
My husband and I both enjoy sports and wanted our sons to experience being on a team, the thrill of competition, and the exhilaration of pushing yourself further than you thought possible. Getting them plugged into athletics seemed like a great way to love on them and build their self-esteem. So we tried soccer, basketball, swim team, gymnastics, and tennis, but we had to face reality: they are not athletically gifted. Unfortunately, several other children on their team were, and they started spending more time on the bench than on the field.
Our kids liked sports, but it clearly wasn’t where they were talented. Acquaintances, sensing our disappointment on the sidelines one afternoon, encouraged us to seek out private lessons and extra coaching so our kids could improve. Should we invest in more training so our kids could “succeed”? It became a defining decision. We had to determine if loving our kids meant plunking down some serious time and money to turn them into better athletes. But, we realized, just because we want something for our children (or they want it for themselves), that doesn’t necessarily make it the right choice for our family. We also shouldn’t assume that our dreams for our children automatically line up with God’s plan for them.
When we parents (accidentally) make our children the center of our longed-for dreams, our financial choices and time commitments can become skewed. Instead of letting nature take its course and watching them get cut from the team or not get the leading role in the school play, we may think love means stacking the deck in their favor, afraid they will be crushed if their dream isn’t realized. We (again, accidentally) convince our children to put their faith in their flesh, not in God’s plan. If you think I am overreaching, just watch the open auditions of American Idol where thousands of disillusioned young adults show up, absolutely convinced they are super stars! (After all, Mom has told them so every day of their lives!)
When we tried to decide what to do about our kids and sports, we faced a similar dilemma. Would we be overreaching by adding extra coaching and lessons to our kids’ schedule? Were we just a few phone calls away from creating self-absorbed kids who would learn Mom and Dad could “fix” everything?
Turns out, wanting to help our children discover their God-given talents meant helping them prayerfully seek his plan, rather than seeking out the top athletic coach. As a parent, I have an instrumental role in shaping their future. cautions that the “human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked.” I prayerfully realized I was seeing my child’s talent through a skewed lens and what I thought was very important to my boys was actually very important to me. Once I gave my boys the chance to take the lead in their interests, we found they had real talent in art. In this case, lavishly loving our children meant seeing who they really are, not who we hoped they would be.
When we seek to parent our children as God parents us—with intimacy, generosity, and honesty—our relationships become more comfortable and personalized, paving the way for healthy, well-adjusted adults who are prepared for this world and ever-mindful of the next.
Helen Coronato is a TCW regular contributor as well as a non-fiction author and a homeschooling mom of two boys. Check out her projects and connect at HelenCoronato.com.