05/18/2012 01:10 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

There Must be 50 Ways to Say I Love You

Little Dude likes to say, "I love you." I don't know if he understands the importance of the words, or if he just likes the reaction he gets, but he uses the phrase easily and often. He loves his friends, his family, his teachers and his favorite toys. Lately, he likes to sidle up to me with a stealthy look and whisper, "I love you," in my ear. I respond with hugs and kisses and an "I love you more" in return. He smiles and says, "Couldn't be possible." I remember the first time he said he loved me, even though the words were mangled and mushy and sounded something like "wuv wu." It didn't matter one bit.

"I love you" may be the most powerful sentence I know.

But although it is heady and profound to hear (and say) "I love you," it is only a microscopic part of parenting. The words are important, but they aren't enough. In fact, they pale in comparison to the ways we show our children we love them. That old cliché, "Actions speak louder than words" is the core of what we do as parents every day.

I learned this gradually. I'm a stepmom and a mom. My boys are sixteen and four. I love them both, but they are different people and they show and receive affection differently. Little Dude is a snuggler, a hugger, a kisser. He wants to be around his dad and me all the time. My stepson is a teenager, and I'm sure the idea of snuggling with his parents horrifies him. He is bright, funny, kind and decent, but he is sixteen after all.

I tell them both I love them, but while Little Dude might hear it twenty times a day, I say it less often to my fabulous stepson. Not because I love him less, but because he's not a preschooler. I used to worry that he might not know how much I care about him because I say those three magic words less often, until a friend reminded me that affection isn't limited to things we say. Because this affirmation came from a woman with two kids who works a demanding job outside her home, gets to school plays and tae kwon do lessons and knits her children new sweaters every year with their ages on them, I paid attention. Besides, she's sort of kickass wise.

Her insight dovetailed with something an old friend once told me. She said that peace isn't a noun, it's a verb. Meaning, peace isn't a state of being, it's an action -- a choice that requires constant tending. Seems to me, love is an action too.

I started thinking of the ways I say I love you, even when I don't say it out loud.

Homemade baby food, rocking Little Dude when he was sick (for hours), parent-teacher conferences, not losing my temper, back-to-school shopping, going to bad movies, and keeping my mouth shut even when I really wanted to chime in, all came to mind. I remembered making favorite meals and three-tier birthday cakes. I thought of years in the stands at sporting events and concerts and hours upon hours spent in cars going to and from activities. I thumbed through books I'd read with or to both of the kids and leafed through piles of artwork, admired and praised. Looking back, I think that I've told the boys I love them a hundred times a day, even though neither they nor I may have known it at the time.

I will confess though, that some of my attempts to show, rather than say, I love you have met with less success than I had hoped.

Like the first time I tried to play video games with my stepson. He was younger then and didn't yet prefer the company of his friends to his parents. I asked him to teach me how to play some of his video games. I hate video games. But I loved this boy, and thought it would be a nice way to spend some time together. He chose a "simple" driving game and let me steer the Mini Cooper. (I anticipated spinning around Paris in a cute red car and showing off my driving skills.) Suddenly, I was not one of those fuddy-duddy parents. I was engaged. I was paying attention. I was getting down in the trenches to understand what my kid was all about. I should have remembered that I had not played a video game since some very stressful rounds of Pac-Man at the Playland Arcade when I was 12.

"Devon, you just drove your car into a bush."

Unable to get the car out of the shrubs, my video game dreams died. From then on, he played first person shoot 'em ups with his dad.

I did better with paper football. I'd like to thank the boys in Mrs. Weaver's sixth grade class at Easterly Parkway Elementary School for teaching me this vital skill. A few hours of flicking a little white triangle back and forth across the dining room table and chatting aimlessly have to count for something, right?

But, whenever I feel like I'm stuck in the weeds, I try to keep a couple of things in mind. First, almost anything can be fixed with food. That's why I do a lot of baking. Nothing says "I love you" like oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and pancakes in the shape of jungle animals. Owning a variety of sprinkles doesn't hurt either. Second, when you can't go all out, find the next best thing. A squeeze on the shoulder and a warm smile are fine replacements for hugs and kisses. Third, it's all about the details. Even when you're exhausted, stressed or overwhelmed, taking the time to make lunches, buy favorite snacks, know friends' names and remember that someone doesn't like olives matters. Finally, and most importantly, when in doubt, do something, anything, even if you're not sure it's enough.

It's everything.