How Do We Learn What 'I Love You' Means and How Do We Learn to Say It?

Friday, December 1, 2017
My mother often tells me I think too much.  I'm not sure what 'too much' is, but I do think a lot and I think about things other people don't think about at all.  This morning I saw something on TV that made me think, and if you know me at all, you know that I'm going to share it with you.
On the Today show today, on Carson Daly's Daily Click, there was a video clip of a little girl, about 3 years old, whose father just shaved his beard.  When the little girl first saw him sans facial hair, she didn't recognize him.  In fact she ran from him.   She asked her mother, 'Who is it?"  Not an unusual reaction from a child this age, but soon she heard the familiarity in his voice and in his words and finally ran to him.  In his arms the little girl hugged her daddy's neck and proclaimed, 'I love you Daddy".  That is when I began thinking.
How does a little child learn what love is?  How do they know what I love you means and how do they learn the concept of declaring their love.  Surely we don't sit down and explain to toddlers what it means to love someone, or like someone, or even dislike someone.  We begin telling our children we love them the moment they are born.  In the course of a few years, we've probably uttered the words I love you thousands of times - in quiet whispers in the wee hours of the night, in the playful hours of the day, even in the trying times when it seems nothing we do can sooth their cries.   During those baby years, teaching love is not really something we actively do.  We just love.  When children get to preschool age, and even sooner if there is a younger sibling, we teach our child to be kind and fair and loving, but still I don't think we actually sit down and explain the concept of loving another human being.  Think about it.  And still somehow, one day your toddler independently hugs you and utters the words that melt your heart....I love you.

We could say that toddlers tell us they love us simply by mimicking a phrase, like other things we teach them by repetition, like please and thank you.  I think it's more than that.  I think our actions, our hugs, our kisses, our consoling during moments of sadness or frustration or difficulties - combined with our words - teach our babies what it means to 'love'.   I think that how we treat our children in those early, formative years demonstrates what I love you means.  When we show love, and combine it with words, children catch on and consequently early on begin to reciprocate the gesture and the words, 'I love you'.
Many of us have grown up in families where even parents, back in the day, didn't actually tell their children, or relatives, or close friends, that they loved them.  From talking to other people my age, it seems that was pretty normal for the time.  I'm pretty sure that the first time my Dad told me he loved me was when he got Alzheimer's.  That may sound surprising, but in the 54+ years of my life that he was alive, I always knew - without question - that he loved me, unconditionally.  Words were not necessary.  However when he finally said them, although I knew his condition had changed him and softened him, removed his bravado enough to allow him to say the words out loud....I wanted to bottle the moment and preserve it for all time.

This idea doesn't just apply to babies.  If you're reading this I'm sure you've experienced this wonderful phenomenon of receiving and giving love.  I'm also sure that you've experienced the words when they sometimes are just that - words.  Unfortunately sometimes the words are empty and don't come with reinforcement.  Words come easy, actions take work.  Most of us these days find it easy to tell our kids we love them. A few years ago I decided that even though my mom wasn't one to say, "I love you" (she even writes Luv Ya), that I was going to start saying it to her - regularly.  When I announced my intention to her (so she wouldn't be shocked and think I was dying or something), she said, 'OK' and now we end every conversation with that.  Although my mother wasn't one to verbalize her love, she demonstrated it my whole life in her hard work and sacrifices, her concern for me and my well being and in her pride.  Still, hearing the words feels good.  Whether or not you are a person who finds it easy to tell people how you feel about them, I think it's important.

During this holiday season, think about this idea.  If you are someone who has never been able to tell your parent or child or best friend you love them.....try to muster up the courage to do it now.  It'll only feel awkward the first time and once the words become audible, you'll be so glad you did.  I'd written I love you to my mom forever, but vocalizing the words, making sure she didn't leave this life without hearing me say them was so important to me.  Is there someone you love who needs to hear it?  During this season of giving, instead of making a list of gifts you want to buy for people you care about, why not make a list of ways you might demonstrate your love for that person?  It's easy to give 'things' but giving of ourselves really demonstrates caring. You can buy your kids all the popular toys on the market, but they will never replace your presence, your attention or your time.  The same is true for family.
Not everyone is lucky enough to come from a loving and affectionate family environment.  If you know someone like that, consider reminding them they are valued by giving them a big hug. It's not too late to start a new habit.  What better time to spread the love than at Christmas.
A bell's not a bell till you ring it,
a song's not a song till you sing it,
Love in your heart wasn't put there to stay,
Love isn't love till you give it away.
-Oscar Hammerstein II

  If you want to enjoy the video that inspired today's on the link below.

Thanks for reading.  I promise - no more interruptions.  Part 10 of the Christmas series is coming tomorrow and as a bonus I have a Part 11 bonus shop!! Thanks for your patience.

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