The messages about love that you send to your children at a young age are so important because love is a powerful, complex, often wonderful, and sometimes painful emotion that will play a central role in their lives. The messages you communicate in your expressions of love toward your children provide the context for the relationship they develop with love: their feelings of love for themselves and others, how to give and receive love, and their comfort to communicate their love to you and others. In the purest sense, your early expressions of love are the first inputs your children receive that will shape their view of themselves. Am I loved? Am I safe? Am I worthwhile? Your love molds their perceptions of the world in which they live. Is it safe? Is it hospitable? Is it supportive? Your early messages of love also lay the foundation for teaching your children the nurturing values, attitudes, and beliefs that will guide them toward being kind, thoughtful, and responsible people.
Your children get their first messages about love from you in the very first days of their lives and beyond. Physical contact, eye gaze, bodily warmth, your voice, a mother's milk, and responsiveness to their needs are all early messages of love. This initial love, so simple and pure, lays the foundation for your love as your children get older and love (and life) gains complexity. Your ability to continue that simplicity and purity of love in the context of an increasingly more complicated and demanding life will ultimately determine the relationship they develop with love throughout their lives.
You want your children to not only feel your love, but for love to become woven into the very fabric of your family's lives that envelops them every day. You want your love to be so imbued in your family life that your children feel your love in everything you do with and for them, even when there is conflict and ill feelings. This feeling provides a solid foundation of the comfort and security that frees them to experience love deeply within themselves, reciprocate your love openly, and express their love for others.
It's never too early to start expressing love in the most healthy ways possible. When you send your children messages of healthy love from a very early age, you provide them with a template of what love should be. Just as importantly, you are training yourself to give healthy love to your children so when they get older and life becomes more challenging, you will continue to communicate messages of love for them that will be as sweet and pure as when they were babies.
Catchphrases for Love
Pretty much from day one of each of their lives, before our daughters, Catie and Gracie, went to bed, I would softly whisper in their ears the question, "How much do I love you?" Obviously, as infants, I didn't expect an answer, plus the question was intended to be rhetorical; hopefully, they could feel how much I loved them. Then, one evening at bedtime when Catie was about two and a half, in response to my question, she said, "Sooo much!" The message had gotten through! And "Sooo much!" has been our catchphrase for my love for them ever since.
A catchphrase used by one mother, Susannah, is "Bigger than the world." She wants to give her love for her children a physical dimension that they can literally and metaphorically grasp. They have a globe in their living room that, when her three children were young, seemed immense. Susannah would say "bigger than the world" and point to the globe. They would then wrap their arms around it to feel the size of her love for them. She would also point to her heart and the globe to send this message a different way. As her children got older and really understood how big the world was and learned about space and the solar system, they got to have some fun with the catchphrase. She would say "bigger than the world" and they would get into a competition to see how big their love could be, for example, "bigger than Saturn," "bigger than the sky," and "bigger than the stars." When Susannah gives her love physical dimensions, she is able to make very tangible the immensity of her love for her children.
Jake, the father of two boys, plays a lot of basketball, a sport with its share of catchphrases (e.g., "slam dunk") and physical expressions of emotions (e.g., chest bump). After a basket, players on his league team often shout "big shot" and pound their chest with their fist. While he was shooting baskets in his driveway one day with his young boys watching nearby, he made a shot and spontaneously shouted "Big Love!" and pounded his chest over his heart with the L sign (thumb out, pointer finger up). His boys cackled with joy and "Big Love" became his catchphrase for them. Now nine and seven years old, his boys, both of whom are now passionate basketball players, shout "Big Love" and pound the L sign on their chest after they sink a basket at home.
Catchphrases don't even have to be words, but can be sounds too. Another father, Dave, told me that when he first laid eyes on his daughter, Patrice, at her birth he thought he was going to explode (and he made this explosion sound effect). From her return home from the hospital, his little "explosion of love" became his catchphrase. While still an infant, he would either give her hug and let out a little explosion or, as she got older, he would stand in front of her, clutch his heart and, with a big smile on his face, let out a big explosion sound while spreading his arms wide. When he related this story, I was worried that his daughter might think Dave is having a heart attack, but she has always gotten a kick out of it, so who am I to judge. And now, at age four, she has her own little explosions of love for him.
Terms of endearment are another form of catchphrases that can send powerful messages of love to your children. Ty, a father of two girls I know, has different love-related names for each of the "ladies" in his family. He calls his wife, "my love," his elder daughter, "my lovette," and his younger daughter, "my loveling." These terms of endearment express his love to all three, yet offered a unique and special expression to each.
Finally, don't forget the most reliable catchphrase for love that has stood the test of time: "I love you!" It may be old fashioned and a bit sentimental, but nothing expresses your feelings of love more unambiguously, directly, or powerfully. And "I love you" is just plain warm and fuzzy. Tell your children (and your spouse) "I love you" early and often -- with hugs and kisses attached, if possible -- so it becomes a part of your family vocabulary.