Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a woman who wanted to help kids at risk. That was –almost 20 years ago.  It was me.  I was a foster mom to a group of really young sisters and they taught me so much. In fact it was from that experience that I decided I wanted to pursue a career in parent education. 

One of the most important lessons I learned was about “love”. Very early in my time with my charges, one of them (the four year-old) told me “I love you”–out of the blue! I was stunned because we hardly knew each other. And I wondered what might have happened in this little girl’s life that she needed to tell me this very expansive statement. 

As time passed and I began to know her better, I discovered that “I love you” was her method of getting out of trouble (sometimes). At other times, she used it to press me to do something that she wanted. And, perhaps, sometimes she said it just because she wanted to say something…and “I love you” is what came out. 

Have you ever wondered what a child imagines “love” is? We use it to describe our favorite TV show; we use it to affirm our appreciation for chocolate; we use it to stimulate a response of “I love you, too” from someone-else. But to a child, what does “I love you” mean?

In response to her words, I made a conscious decision–I decided that it wasn’t appropriate for a child who hardly knew me (and was going to leave me eventually) to envision what she felt for me as “love”. She had already experienced loss and heartbreak (that I was sure her parents associated with “love”. And I didn’t want to become another adult who would vanish. Instead, I believed that it was my job to promote her sense of independence, help her develop a strong self-esteem and provide a vocabulary that was genuine and relationship-building.

Toward that end, I encouraged her to change her wording. Instead of saying “I love you” (which she didn’t really understand anyway), I asked her to say “I want you to be happy”. I didn’t want to shut her down; I wanted her to learn a new way to think about extended people in her life and a practical and truthful statement to make at moments when she felt especially connected.

My thinking was that she would be able to verbalize those moments when she felt good about “us” (she and I) and wanted to express her feelings. 

Now years later, I’ve gained more insight into the usefulness of “love”. “I love you” is often an automatic rote statement and many of us (and our kids) don’t really think about what we are saying. I don’t want to nix the concept of telling someone how you feel about him/her–but I don’t think it serves any of us to get into the habit of saying something “just because”.

So what can we do to avoid habit of “I love you”?–Mix it up. When you feel a special connection with someone (an adult, a partner, or your kids), share an appreciation about him/her. 

“I feel really good when you help me do the dishes”
“I’m so proud when I see you work at your homework even though it’s difficult”
“You remembered my birthday, Wow!”
“When I looked at your drawing I could see you really used your imagination!”

These examples of “Appreciation” do several things: 1) they create a good feeling of connection that we all want from the people we love, 2) they use language to describe our feelings about our loved ones; 3) they offer a new way to demonstrate a special bond and relationship.

It takes a little imagination but next time–

when you drop your kids off at school tell them “I can’t wait to see you later”, “I’ll miss you today”,
or when your romantic partner says “I love you”, resist a reactive habit and say instead: “Ooh, yummy!”, or “I’m really glad”, or “Ditto”.
or when you tuck your kids into bed tell them “Sweet Dreams”, or “I really enjoyed being with you today”, or “You’re the best”.

Making the statement “I love you” special and meaningful requires keeping it special…not a habit or a manipulation. Get creative; look inside and express what you feel with new and unique words; encourage your kids to do the same. 

For more ways to connect with your children, visit http://www.HomeworkSuccessNetwork.com Looking for new and refreshing and genuine ways of communicating with your kids is always a good thing.

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