It was eleven in the morning on a Sunday. My oldest child, who is nearly six, had just finished her breakfast and was about to scurry off to play with her one-year-old brother.
Being on my normal table manners duty, I called out to her “Don’t forget to put your plate in the sink!” She hurried back, picked up her plate and started walking to the kitchen. Halfway to the kitchen she turned around, looked at me, said with a sweet smile “I love you,” and then ran off.
This small moment became larger as I reflected on the parenting my wife and I have done over the first six years of our daughter’s life and the impact we may have had in that seemingly small moment.
It is reassuring to think that for our daughter to express her love in such an unprompted way, she must feel the love that we have for her. In contemplating this discovery, I decided to pay extra attention to some of the small things our daughter says and does. The way that she wants to share a story from school with her mother, or the way she will kindly ask if we are okay when she notices that we look tired; it all comes back to modeling the same empathy and love that we give her. We all know just how deeply we love our children…with a depth that is difficult to give justice to with words alone. We hope that one day we will bear witness to our children having children of their own, so that they may truly understand what we have felt for them.
However, don’t we also hope that they get the depth of our adoration right now? That we can make them feel how loved they are without crossing the line into spoiling them?
If you share in this desire, you are not alone! Read on to learn about ways in which we can make sure our children know how loved they are, without spoiling them in the process.
#1: Be an Active Listener
When she was around five months old, my oldest daughter began using “baby talk” to converse with us. Baby babble is common in babies from six weeks to when they become a full-blown talker. For my daughter, this baby babble could go on for a good three minutes and was usually in response to my wife or I saying something to her.
The more we talked to her, the more she would respond– until she got tired and moved on to other things like crying for a feed or a nappy change. As she grew older, this habit of conversing extended to longer periods of time.
Responding to baby babble as if it is real speech has many benefits. Studies show that babies will pick up on communication skills faster when parents respond to their babble with supportive language cues.
In addition to the clear benefits towards the development of language, responding to a child’s attempts to communicate sets the precedent that they can tell anything to the parent, without the fear of getting cut off. As children grow, these conversations will get longer and more insightful.
So what does active listening and good communication look like with our children?
- Giving our child our full attention, free of distractions.
- Focusing on not just the words, but the body language and facial expressions of our children.
- Using our own body language and facial expressions to show that we are invested in listening.
- Repeating what we think our child is saying, so as to allow them to correct us if we misunderstand.
In the chaos of life, it can be difficult to always have conversations with our children that are free of distractions. Additionally, as our children grow from babies to toddlers and then to school-aged children, it’s not uncommon for them to slowly spend more and more time away from us during the day.
How can we ensure that we continue to find times to practice active listening as a way to communicate how much we love our children?
- Set aside time to have conversations. This could include dinner time or be part of a bedtime routine, depending on the age of the child.
- Make the choice and set the expectation that phones, TVs, and other electronics are turned off during conversations. Social media and devices are most often the cause of distractions in our modern world.
- Be open to talking about emotions or difficult topics. This builds trusts and communicates that no topic is off limits!
Finally, consider Dr. Laura Markham’s emphasis on reconnection after periods of time in which we are away from our children. This may mean choosing to let the phone ring, turning off the TV, or turning off the radio and listening to our child talk about their day. Utilizing active listening to encourage conversations and refocus our attention to our children after a separation is important in communicating our love.
#2: Share Stories
There will come a time when children will want to hear stories from their parents. This may include made-up stories and fairy tales, but it may also include true stories about their parents. How was our day at work? Where is our office? What games did we play when we were kids? Did we get in trouble with our mom or dad?
The more stories we tell about ourselves, the more encouraged our children will feel that they are a big part of our lives. The benefits of storytelling extends to cover the classics, fairy-tales, and our own personal make-believe stories! Storytelling is an amazing way to connect and share love with our children without the negative benefits that spoiling could yield!
As Shannon Brescher Shea explains, storytelling has many benefits, including:
- Passing on values and beliefs.
- Teaching children acceptance by helping them relate to people who are different from them.
- Empathizing and connecting with a child who may be struggling with something similar to a struggle in the story.
- Instilling a positive outlook towards life, relationships, friends, or anything else in real life.
- Helping diffuse tension. When our children are feeling down, we can recall a funny family story to bring a smile to their face.
Eventually, there will come a time when our children will begin to repeat the stories we give as a way to engage with us, siblings, or friends. Additionally, children will begin to reciprocate the story telling of their day away from us.
When children feel loved and secure, they are more willing to “share” stories from their own life. I vividly remember when my daughter was old enough to have the words and sentences to begin sharing the events of her day away from me. Storytelling was a natural way for her to reciprocate the love that she felt…especially as her mom and I took the time to be active listeners!
#3: Say “Yes”
Has your child ever asked if he or she can “help” around the house with chores? Children are born with a natural curiosity of the real world, even when it comes to mundane tasks like doing the laundry or washing the dishes. While we may dislike these repetitive tasks, children see them as special and extraordinary.
It’s easy to say “no” to requests to help because we just want the task to be finished quickly and in the right way. Allowing our children to be included in household chores or tasks not only allows for their growth and learning, but in taking the time to teach them new tasks, we are also communicating love.
Jeanne-Marie Paynel, M.Ed. makes the point that parents can view chores in one of two ways. She explains that chores can be seen
“as annoying obligations that must be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible, or as valuable opportunities to spend quality time with your child, help them develop life-long skills, and observe their progress.”
While it may be instinctual to say “no,” we can make the commitment to say “yes” to requests from our children. Even when the request is for a new toy or game, saying “yes” does not need to be a general permission for all requests; however, it may open an opportunity for skill-building conversation.
During these conversations, we can ask why a toy or game is important for them to have and what they could do to earn it. We can talk with our child to find out their current level of understanding of the steps needed to complete a chore they are asking to help with. We can even use these openings as a segue into talking about deeper topics.
While it’s often easier to say “no,” denial of a request may not be the best way to encourage the execution of reasoning skills or logical thinking, both of which are essential to develop and grow through the teenage years and into adult life. Saying “yes” more often and following it up with conversation lets our child know how loved they are without spoiling them in the process.
#4: Communicate Love Through Touch
Depending on the age of your children, you are either in the stage of early morning bed cuddles or hopefully remembering those days! It’s with good reason that young children love to pop into mom and dad’s bed in the morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night!). Nothing feels more like being loved than physical touch.
This simple act of physical touch expresses more than possibly any other technique in the world. Physical affection towards our children is not only vital from a bonding perspective but also essential for healthy development and well-being.
Physical touch is so important that it is scientifically linked to improved weight gain in premature babies, improved cognitive and emotional development, reduction of depression, reduction of some behaviors associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, and a stronger immune system.
Some of the scientifically proven benefits of a big ole’ hug include:
- It makes kids smarter– kids who were held for at least 20 minutes per day for 10 weeks scored higher on brain development assessments!
- It keeps kids healthy – failure to thrive conditions are directly linked to a lack of physical affection.
- It can stop tantrums by providing calm and supportive feedback to a young child who has lost control of their big emotions.
- It makes kids more resilient. Children haven’t learned how to regulate their emotions, so stress can linger in their bodies. Hugs trigger the release of oxytocin, lowering levels of stress hormones and assisting in the development of resilience.
- It helps you bond with your child. Hugging is known to improve trust, reduce fear, and strengthen relationships. These benefits are mutual; giving and receiving physical affection is good for both you and your child.
We should be mindful of giving our children purposeful physical affection that is outside of the daily touch we use in providing necessary care. There is something to be said about the “hug it out” technique when our children (or we!) are stressed out. Conscious physical connections with our children do not just let our children know how loved they are, but are equally beneficial to us!
#5: Surprise Them When They Least Expect It
There is nothing quite like the excitement in a child’s eyes when they encounter something wonderful that they did not expect!
Surprises can come in many ways, but don’t need to always be in the form of Christmas morning or a birthday for them to feel the love.
When used effectively, surprises can have a positive effect on the relationships with our children. This is especially true for surprises that are centered around experiences rather than tangible items. Think about it–are the best surprises of your childhood centered around a toy you received or a special trip or activity you did with a loved one?
A few activity-centered “surprises” that kids will love include:
- Sleep-overs with close friends.
- Family involvement in a child-prefered activity (such as baking or crafts).
- Secretly decorating a bedroom door with balloons or heart messages.
- Using packed lunches to surprise them with notes or a sweet treat.
The best thing about planning surprises for your kids is that just like everything else, children tend to model the behavior they see others exhibit. The surprise offer to help with younger siblings or cleaning the house could very well mean that the love behind your surprise efforts is being felt and reciprocated.
Remember These to Avoid Spoiling
If you have ever worried about accidentally spoiling your children, you are not alone. We have all been guilty of going against our better judgement and “giving in” for the sake of ending the tears or tantrums.
Rest assured that the occasional slip-up in a moment of despair will not lead to a spoiled child. Parents who look for ways (like those listed above!) to show their love outside of giving into a child’s every whim and want are those most successful at not spoiling their children.
These parents are also most likely to be able to distinguish between spoiling versus nurturing. It’s important to remember that a child’s needs vary during the first few years of life; therefore, it’s helpful to be able to establish the fine line between what a child needs and what they want.
Parents of newborns and babies need not worry about spoiling their child by responding to their crying. It has been scientifically proven that not only is it not possible to spoil a baby by responding to their cries, but that responding leads to healthier development.
For toddlers, allowing a sense of power and control is essential for healthy development. Finding ways in which we can offer our toddlers choices (that are within our control) is not spoiling, it’s offering them opportunities for independence.
When children reach school age, showing our love without spoiling can become tricky. It can be easy to give in to the child who wants the popular pencil case, but this can quickly turn into the lunch box, school bag, and eventually those expensive shoes.
It’s important to provide the necessities for our children to lead a successful life, but we also need to remember that giving in to every whim does not guarantee their happiness.
Look out for these indicators that your child may be approaching “spoilt” territory:
- Difficulty handling the word “no,” particularly once over toddler age.
- A constant need for bigger and better or an unappreciation for things acquired.
- Only thinking about themselves or an air of entitlement.
- A need for instant gratification or difficulty waiting for something they want.
- Reluctance to complete tasks without bribes.
Acting “spoiled” is a behavior, but does not have to be a permanent trait. Like all behaviours, it can be unlearned with encouragement and setting good examples as parents.
While we make sure that our children know how loved they are, we can also avoid spoiling them by:
- Setting limits and expectations.
- Encouraging simple manners, including please and thank you.
- Avoiding excessive false praise.
- Demonstrating small acts of kindness.
- Encouraging their participation in charity and volunteering.
While there is always something powerful about the simple words “I love you,” we also know that our children rely on feeling our love and not just hearing about it. Our small efforts and actions can go far in making sure our children know how much we love them…without spoiling them in the process.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
As you move forward with deciding on the ways in which you can show love to your child without the risk of spoiling them, use these questions to evaluate the current ways you show your love:
- What do meal times look like in my home? Are distractions kept to a minimum as we use it as an opportunity to reconnect?
- Do I use storytelling as a love language? How often do I share stories from when I was a kid?
- How often do I tell my child “no”? Do I allow my child to do household chores with me?
- Is physical affection the norm at home?
- How often do I plan “surprise” activities to do with my child?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Moving forward in your mission to make sure your children know how loved they are (without spoiling them in the process), choose at least two (or more if you are super ambitious!) of the following ideas and commit to carrying them out over the next few weeks:
- Make a conscious effort to have device-free or distraction-less mealtimes. When you are not distracted, the conversations will start flowing naturally about your day or something that you are worried about. It is important for children to feel a part of the dinner time talk.
- When your child is having a bad day or is sad about something, tell a story to relate to that emotion. It may be a personal story from your own childhood, or could be a fictional story from a book or fairy tale.
- Engage your child in chores around the house. This will not only enable them to learn the importance of mundane chores, but also give you time to bond and talk about things (much like undistracted mealtimes).
- Commit to putting aside “cuddle” time every day. Even for the teenager, lounging on the couch together while watching a family movie or chatting can count!
- Re-evaluate your listening skills. Make an effort to allow space and time for your child to talk, give body language that reflects your attention, and rephrase what they said to ensure their ability to correct you.