We all know we love our children, but do our children know it? Gary Chapman, Ph.D., the senior associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, says parents sometimes express love to their children in ways their children don't understand. Chapman wrote "The Five Love Languages of Children," along with child psychiatrist Ross Campbell, M.D. He advises parents to identify their child's primary love language, meaning the way the child gives and receives love most naturally.
The concept of love languages came from Chapman's marriage-counseling practice. "I was hearing similar stories about not feeling loved, and I thought there was a pattern," Chapman said. He found that people wanted to receive love in ways that fit into five categories. He called these different ways of expression "love languages." Chapman soon realized that love languages also applied to children.
Chapman says that love is the primary human emotional need. Parental love is critical to helping a child develop into a healthy, loving adult. Children who feel unconditionally loved also behave better and learn better, he said.
"There is no question that parents love their children," Dr. Chapman said. "The question is, 'Does your child feel loved?' "
By speaking your child's primary love language, you can make sure your love comes through loudly and clearly.
The Five Love Languages
The love languages of children are the various ways that love is expressed between a caregiver and child. These expressions fall into five categories:
Words of Affirmation
Involves giving a child compliments, encouragement and words of affection. Words that give positive guidance also fall under this language. For children whose primary love language is words of affirmation, unkind or harsh words are particularly devastating.
Involves giving a child full, undivided attention for a period. This time together need not be long or require going anywhere special. Quality time is a "gift of presence" to the child. Conversely, distractions, postponed time together and extended time away from the parent can be particularly hurtful to a child whose love language is quality time.
Giving and Receiving Gifts
Is a universal expression of love across cultures. Dr. Chapman said parents should not mistake this love language for materialism. The important factor is the "love, thoughtfulness and effort behind the gift." He also cautions against giving gifts as a substitute for spending time with the child.
Acts of Service
Involves specials acts, such as making a favorite dinner or fixing a beloved toy. Parenting naturally involves service, but the attitude a parent shows toward these activities makes all the difference. "When parents service their children with a spirit of resentment and bitterness, a child's physical needs may be met, but his emotional development will be greatly hampered," says Chapman. Overemphasizing independence and not responding to requests for help can be discouraging for children who speak this language.
Communicates love through a hug, pat on the back or holding a child while reading a book. For the child whose love language is physical touch, love is communicated most deeply through physical displays of affection. The physical expression of anger or hostility is especially hurtful to these children.
Identify Your Child's Love Language
Identifying your child's love language begins with observation. "You can discover a child's primary language pretty early, at least by 3, if you observe the behavior of a child," Dr. Chapman says.
Notice three things about your child's behavior:
* How does your child show you love?
* What does your child complain about most often?
* What do they request from you?
Over time, a pattern will emerge, and you will typically be able to determine your child's love language. If you are still unsure, Chapman offers additional strategies. One is giving children choices between alternatives that represent different love languages. Another is to emphasize one language each week. "On the week you are speaking their language, you will see a dramatic positive change in behavior," he says.
Using Love Languages
Knowing a child's love language helps parents behave in ways that make a child feel most loved. Chapman recommends that grandparents, teacher and other caregivers also understand a child's love language.
Chapman advises parents emphasize a child's preferred language but show him love in all five languages. "You give heavy doses of the primary language and you sprinkle in the other four, because we want the child to learn how to give and receive love in all five languages. That's the healthiest adult," Chapman said.
In addition to making a child feel loved, awareness of the love languages can lead to a more loving home environment overall. "The healthiest emotional atmosphere for a child is created by a mother and father who love each other," Chapman says. Parents who know how to express love to their children and spouse and to ask for love in their preferred language help children do the same in future relationships.
Parents of multiple children sometimes struggle with applying the concept to children whose primary love languages differ. "There is a commonly held idea that you should treat all your children the same," Chapman says. He says parents are more effective expressing love to each child in the child's preferred language.
Writing "The Five Love Languages of Children" has allowed Chapman to help more people than he could ever help in person. "My overall goal is to help parents do more effectively what they are trying to do already ... love their child," Chapman says.
Chapman has also co-authored with Rick Osborne on the children's book, "A Perfect Pet for Peyton." The story introduces the concept of love languages and helps children recognize and communicate love in ways that make the other person feel loved.
Jan Wharton is a freelance writer who lives in Winston-Salem.
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