An experiment for parents: go and tell your child that you love them. Then ask them why do they think you love them? Don’t prompt an answer. Don’t make any suggestions. Just ask them why — and then wait for the response.
I did this recently with my 5 year old daughter and was surprised and shocked by her response.
Backing up a little bit…I have three children and I tell them that I love them all the time. I praise them when they do well; I encourage them; we laugh together; we play tricks on each other; we hug and kiss; we read stories together; we eat together; we watch movies together and so on. Simply put, they know they are loved.
I was prompted to have this conversation with my daughter after speaking to a good friend of mine called Tim who talked to me about the unintentional expectations that parents place on their children. He explained that many children grow up believing sub-consciously that they are loved only in response to their achievements. Put another way, they believe they are loved because of what they do not who they are. Think about it: as a parent, when do you most often show love to your child and when do you give them praise? The answer is probably when they have done something notable. Something praiseworthy.
Three years ago, Harvard University undertook a survey of 10,000 students who were asked what they believed their parents cared about most for their life. The students were given three options to pick from:
- your parents care most that you achieve highly;
- your parents care most that you are happy;
- your parents care most that you are kind to others.
The results make for depressing reading: more than half (54%) of students picked ‘achieve highly’ as the thing they thought was most important to their parents. 27% said that their parents cared most about their happiness. Only 19% said the thing their parents cared about most was them being kind.
The findings are sad and troubling and they confirm that modern society tends to prioritise what David Brooks calls resume virtues as opposed to eulogy virtues. But what’s equally troubling is that parents don’t even realise what they are doing; they are conveying these values completely unintentionally (as my friend Tim had said). The findings of the Harvard survey explained that parents think they prioritise kindness but clearly this is not what their children are hearing. The survey concluded that there is a “troubling gap between what adults say and what students perceive about the importance of caring, kindness, and respect”.
Back to my conversation with my daughter. When I asked her why she thought I loved her, her first guess was “because I’m beautiful?” No, I said, have another try. “Because I’m clever?” Nope, try again. “Because I’m funny?” I stopped her after her third guess, more to end my own misery than hers.
Thankfully, my earlier conversation with Tim had pre-warned me that these answers were likely and so I was pre-armed with a response.
I told my daughter that those things about her were true – that she is beautiful and clever and funny. But, they are not the reason I love her. The reason I love you, I explained, is because you’re my daughter and I’m your daddy.
She looked confused but I carried on.
This is a fact that can never change; I will always be your daddy and you will always be my daughter and that means that I will always love you no matter how clever you are, how funny you are, or how beautiful you are. I just love you because you are you.
I kissed her good night and that was the end of our conversation. However, I’ve started deliberately replaying this conversation with my children from time to time so that as they grow up they are consciously aware that they are loved simply for who they are not what they do.
I share all of this for two reasons. Firstly, because this whole concept took me by surprise and, as a result, it has been playing on my mind for a while. I wanted to get it off my chest! Secondly, I am writing in the hope that parents who read it will go and tell their children that they love them, for no reason other than because they do.
I guess sometimes we all need a little prompt to tell the ones closest to us how we feel. And if that happens, if just one parent does that because of this post, then every single one of these 769 words were completely and utterly worth it!