One thing we’ve come to know from running a childcare center is that what works for one child, may be completely ineffective with another. However, while the “how to” details can differ, the one constant for every child that we meet (and every adult for that matter) is that it is essential for all children to have their emotional needs met in order to feel safe, happy, fulfilled, and secure. And in order to do this, we need to be aware of how children receive love.
Every child gives and receives love in their own unique and special way, what Gary Chapman terms “Love Languages”. Think of each of your children as having a “Love Tank”, much like the gas tank in a car. Each time you speak your child’s love language to him or her, you are making a deposit in their love tank, and giving them emotional strength that fuels them through the day.
Dr. Chapman describes 5 different ways children speak and understand love:
Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gifts, and Acts of Service.
Remember that each child, even siblings, may have different love languages. Not only that but some children may respond to multiple love languages. Pay close attention to how your child responds to each love language to determine what love language best meets their emotional needs.
1. Physical Touch
Hugs and kisses are the most common way of speaking this love language. Think about it – if you ask a child “How do you know you are loved?”, the child will reply with things like: “Because I get extra hugs and kisses” or “Because mom cuddles with me while reading before I go to bed”. But physical touch isn’t just confined to hugs and kisses. A dad tosses his son in the air or spins his daughter round and round, and she laughs wildly. A mom reads a story with her child on her lap. Holding hands, stroking your child’s head at bedtime, or long meaningful hugs will make this child feel confident and secure in their surroundings.
For children who understand this love language, physical touch will communicate love more deeply than will the words, “I love you,” or giving a present, fixing a bicycle, or spending time with them. Physical touch is one of love’s strongest voices and one of the easiest love languages to use unconditionally. Of course, they receive love in all the languages, but for them, the one with the clearest and loudest voice is physical touch. Without hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and other physical expressions of love, their love tanks will remain less than full.
2. Words of Affirmation
In communicating love, words are powerful. Words of affection and endearment, words of praise and encouragement, words that give positive guidance all say, “I care about you.” Words of affirmation are any form of verbal praise and affirmation that is genuine and affirming how much love you have for your child. It’s not limited to the words “I love you”, though that is definitely important. If you ask a child how they know they are loved, a child with this love language will say things like: “Because Mom and Dad tell me when I’ve done a good job on a school project”, “Because they cheer loud for me at all my sports”, “Because they are always telling me how proud they are of me and how hard I work”.
These are all examples of not generic “good job” praises but specific positive praise. In general, this is a love language we have noticed every child responds to in one way or another. Other examples of ways to give words of affirmation without verbalizing are to put a note in your child’s lunchbox with encouraging words or post-it notes on the mirror. We love the new trend of putting hearts on your child’s door each day in February before Valentine’s, each with a reason why you love your child. Of course, this isn’t limited to February – any month is a great month to let your child know all the reasons you value them!
3. Quality Time
Quality time is a parent’s gift of presence to a child – of focused attention. And by presence, we don’t mean being in the same room but looking down at the phone. Because what really makes this child feel loved is your undivided attention. You can tell this is your child’s love language when they make repeated attempts and requests to play together and are consistently seeking you out for one-on-one time. Quality time is giving your child the gift of presence, where you are going to their emotional and physical level of development. If you have more than one child, try to spend time with each of them individually.
It conveys this message: “You are important. I like being with you.” It makes the child feel that he is the most important person in the world to the parent. They feel truly loved because he has his parents all to himself. Remember the most important factor in quality time is not the event itself but that you are doing something together, being together.
Examples of ways to gift quality time include things such as quality conversations that show direct and positive eye contact, doing some cooking which is creative and a simple household activity or making a “date” with your child to do something special. This doesn’t have to be expensive – picnics are absolutely magical to most kids and a great way to create a cost-efficient memory.
Most children respond positively to gifts, but for some, receiving gifts is their primary love language. You might be inclined to think that this is so for all children, judging from the way they beg for things. It is true that all children—and adults—want to have more and more. But those whose language of love is receiving gifts will respond differently when they get their gift. Remember, for them, this is love’s loudest voice. They see the gift as an extension of you and your love.
The most meaningful gifts become symbols of love, but in order for this one to work, the child must feel like the parent genuinely cares. It can’t be a payment for something a child did, or it no longer meets the love language of gifts. It’s an expression of meaning that shows the child they are special. In other words, it needs to be an expression of love that has meaning to the child and freely given by the parent. It’s not about the size or cost of the gift, either, that makes gifts special. Often it is the thought put into the gift that can really speak to your child’s love language.
Some examples include: making a special meal you know your child likes, give your child a “song” you created for them that is special to the two of you, hide a small gift in your child’s lunchbox, or give a gift that lasts, like planting a tree together. Now every time they see their tree grow they will be reminded of your love.
5. Acts of Service
This love language is a harder one to define because parents already provide so many “acts of service” for our children in our day-to-day parenting. We are constantly providing service to our kids, but the Acts of Service love language is different than the daily things we do as a parent. Gary Chapman defines it as “an internal desire to give one’s energy freely, and done without coercion”.
For example, when a child is asking you for help in fixing their bike, or finding a lost toy, or learning how to do something new, they are asking for emotional love! It doesn’t mean that you should jump at every request but rather be sensitive to the child’s request and know that your response will help fill your child’s love tank. Other ways to meet their need for Acts of Service are searching for ways outside of the daily “need to do services” to show this love language. Examples of this would be waking up early to make your child’s favorite breakfast, or meeting a child’s individual preferences (if you have a child who loves to have a clean room, surprising them with cleaning their room or doing a chore that is normally theirs). These ways of going above and beyond and thinking about the things that bring this particular child joy/services that relate to this joy that you as the parent can do are ways to meet this emotional need.
Now that you know each of the love languages and examples of how to implement them, the most important job you have is identifying your child’s love language. So how do you know what your child’s love language is? Look for clues everyday! And keep in mind your child will likely respond well to the attention and love they feel from many of these love languages. But if you observe long enough and close enough, a specific love language will begin to stand out. With love languages, you can pay attention to:
- How your child expresses love to you
- How your child expresses love to others
- Listen to what your child requests most often
- Notice what your child most frequently complains about
- Give your child a choice between two options, and see what they most frequently choose
Remember the most important thing about discovering and meeting your child’s love language is that your child feels strong and secure in their relationship with you which translates to a confident child — not to mention it will strengthen the parent-child relationship greatly!
Because Austin Kids Retreat has both drop-in childcare and a preschool program we have to take different approaches to determine how kids will best respond and their love language based on the amount of time we have with them. With our preschool students, we are able to work with these kiddos daily and on a consistent schedule and really get to know how they give and receive love. While some of our drop-in childcare kids are frequent flyers and others only visit occasionally, we want to find out how they feel the safest and most content – no matter how much time they spend with us. This means attempting to quickly identify each child’s love language and meet that need. Luckily with over 20 years of childcare experience, I have many tricks up my sleeve to teach to our staff and then implement, in order to meet these love languages and make your child feel safe and secure (not to mention have SO much fun) in our care!