When it comes to raising and nurturing emotionally healthy children, you might be tempted to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Resist that urge, though. Kids — like adults — have distinct preferences when it comes to expressing and receiving affection. Even though we know all children are different, it can be surprising to learn that treating them the same just doesn’t work no matter how hard we try.
I noticed this phenomenon firsthand when homeschooling my two granddaughters during the pandemic. The kindergartener thrived on physical affection, wanting cuddles regularly. In contrast, the fifth grader resisted being hugged. It wasn’t just their age that separated their love and attention needs, either. It was their uniqueness as human beings.
Although I was baffled a bit at first, I eventually aligned my interactions into each granddaughter’s primary “love language” with great results. You can do the same with the children in your life.
Applying the 5 Love Languages to Children
In the late 1990s, Gary Chapman, Ph.D., collaborated with Ross Campbell, MD, to write “The Five Love Languages of Children.” Based on Chapman’s earlier work focusing on couples’ love languages, “The Five Love Languages of Children” breaks down five ways kids prefer to receive kindness, closeness, and tenderness from their loved ones.
The first of these love languages is physical touch, such as hugs and kisses. For example, a child might love snuggling in a rocking chair while reading a story or enjoy mock wrestling in the family room.
Other children might want to receive love with words of affirmation. They get security from hearing that their parents or caretakers think they’re smart, talented, or accomplished.
The third form involves spending quality time together. When my son was young, for instance, he threw epic tantrums when he became frustrated. Eventually, he learned to say, “Mom, I think I need a book.” He knew I’d drop everything and spend a few quiet moments with him. As an adult in his 40s, he still reminisces about the quality time we shared.
Gifts are the fourth love language. Kids with this love language open a gift and squeal with delight. Until I read about the five love languages, I wondered why I couldn’t get gifts “right” with one of my grandsons. It turns out that he didn’t want stuff. So I started giving him experiences such as seeing a musical or play rather than trinkets.
Acts of service are the fifth love language. Some children want loved ones to help them. Remember the granddaughter who didn’t want to be hugged? She loves helping me with projects. I taught her to use a sewing machine, and she began making napkins, pillows, and other simple things. She needed to learn how she could assist others as a way to express and receive love.
Uncovering Your Child’s Preferred Love Language
Knowing the five love languages is one thing. Figuring out your own child’s is another. Even if you think you know which love language your kids gravitate toward, it’s helpful to reexamine that belief to ensure you’re showing love in the best way. Here are some suggestions to get started:
1. Practice self-reflection.
Think back to moments that have made your child react with delight. Maybe it happened when you said, “I had no idea you could sing like that!” Or was it when Friday evenings became family movie nights complete with lots of couch snuggles? Your child won’t always verbalize how they like to receive love, so it helps to reflect on how they’ve reacted to different forms of affection in the past.
2. Offer choices.
If your child is old enough to articulate their thoughts and wishes, feel free to ask questions such as “What do you think we could do as a family this weekend?” One child might suggest going out for a meal. Another might want to volunteer at the animal shelter. Take your cues from how all your family members react. Then, use their responses to better understand their love language preferences. You can then switch between each child’s preference by visiting a restaurant one weekend and giving money to a charity the next. That way, everyone feels the love.
3. Be sincere.
There was a time when parents were encouraged to affirm their kids with phrases like “You’re the most special/brilliant/beautiful/clever child in the world.” Unfortunately, kids see through these attempts to boost self-esteem. I did when I asked my mom whether I was pretty and she answered, “Well, I think you are.” Well-intentioned? Yes. Satisfying to me? Not quite. Words are powerful, but they must ring true. My grandfather used to listen to me practice my flute. I still remember him saying, thoughtfully, “You can play anything ever written, can’t you?” I knew I was good, but those words of affirmation meant the world to me.
It can be baffling to treat your offspring equally only to get unequal responses. It’s normal, though. Everyone — kids and adults alike — has a preferred love language. Uncover each little one’s preference, and you’ll raise secure, happy, and confident kids.