Friday, May 11, 2012

How to Teach a Child What Love Means

I am battered and blue from a week of "Mother's Day" reminders that have sought to bludgeon Americans with guilt--cheap spam pot shots in my email's Inbox and on the television, another upper cut in the weekly coupon circulars from my mailbox, and the final knockout in the Vegas-style neon store signs flashing by the road side.

If you love your mother, you will buy her, tell her, give her, show her, write her, cook for her.....and on Sunday!  No other day will do!

Does a mother really feel loved when she hears/receives such protestations on a day when it's socially compelled?  I just don't know.

As a mother, myself, "I love you" was one of the first phrases my children heard me say.  No one forced me to repeat it to their chubby faces whose muscles weren't yet developed enough to repeat it back to me.  Even now, I voice my love every day to each of them in turn because I want them to hear the words as well as see love in my actions.

But to a child, what does that phrase really mean? When you're still too small to take off the training wheels or hit a junior-sized basketball goal without help, how can you truly understand such a nebulous concept as "love"?


Wednesday afternoon found me lugging in heavy bags of groceries while my oldest son curled into himself into the naughty bench.  Just another growth-spurt tantrum for this budding Icarus, trying to fly sunward with wax wings.

As usual, Wyatt was supposed to think about his actions, talk to God, and get control of himself so we two could then talk.  Instead, he buried his face in a pillow, covering it in salty tears and snot, and grew more upset rather than more penitent.

Cold groceries no longer forming a lake on the floor, I sat down and pulled him my arms.  He only sobbed harder, a glimpse at my little boy peeking through the cracked older boy shell he wears like a coat too large for his small frame.

At the end of our conversation, I hugged him close and said, "You know mommy loves you, don't you?"

"No." he stated solemnly, barely a whisper.

I repeated the question, jokingly this time to brighten the mood; yet, he stood firm.


In his eyes, a loving mother would not punish him.  I understood. Even so, it hurt my heart.

Thankfully, God brought to mind Hebrews 12:6: "the Lord disciplines the one he loves."  Ears perked up as I told him how God disciplines even this mommy and his daddy.  Then, I asked him how he knows mommy loves him.

"She takes care of me when I'm sick."
"She gives me healthy food to eat."
"She reads with me."
"She plays games with us."
"She pushes me on the swing."

He stopped.  That was all he could think of.  Ugh.

Did he know I scoured the thrift store to make sure he had nice clothes to wear because I loved him?  Did he know I washed and folded those clothes because I loved him? Did he know I helped him write stories because I loved him? I built train layouts because I loved him? Picked up toys? Taught him to shoot a basketball? Took him on nature walks? Let him pick and eat all the blueberries and strawberries without asking for any for myself? Organized "festivals" to celebrate the first of Spring and Autumn? ......Disciplined him?

All because I loved him?

No.  He didn't.  But with that knowledge stated aloud, his eyes were less clouded.  He snuggled in closer.

This lack of understanding of what love is--it's a universal problem.  Poet Robert Hayden wrote this same concept concerning his father's love: 

     Sundays too my father got up early
     and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
     then with cracked hands that ached
     from labor in the weekday weather made
     banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him....
     What did I know, what did I know
     of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Only when the child turns parent will he truly be able to understand the many sacrifices of love his parents made for him.  But until then, it's up to mothers and fathers to teach their young that it's not just about one highly commercialized day to show love, to teach the many ways others can show love to them and that they can likewise show love to others.

If we don't teach them that love is more than a fuzzy feeling or words on a page... If we don't teach them what love looks like in everyday action, how will they ever know?

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