Did you know that about 40 percent of the 180 million Valentine’s cards purchased this year will be bought by parents?
It makes sense if you think about it. Our little ones, even when not so little anymore, live in our hearts. We want them to know it. Valentine’s Day gives us a reason to show it.
That’s why parents of young children not only buy cards but do things like put a red tablecloth on the table, serve heart-shaped pancakes at breakfast, slip little notes into lunch boxes or present a heart-shaped cake at dinner. For tweens and teens, parents often send a Valentine’s text message or an e-card as a low-key way to convey love without inducing embarrassment. For adult children, many of us send a card or flowers or at least make a phone call to let them know we carry them in our hearts no matter how far away they’ve flown. Celebrating a day dedicated to love makes us all smile.
To nurture the heart and warmth of a family, the rituals around Valentine’s Day — actually saying and doing loving things for those we love — is something that we parents can and should do regularly. Little ones need a daily dose. Grown kids need reminders of our love less often but with just as much heartfelt emotion.
Yes, February 14 gives us all a special day to do things up in a big way. But kids who get daily deposits in their emotional bank accounts are kids who develop and sustain the resilience to manage the stresses of life. They are the kids most likely to have the emotional vocabulary necessary to make good romantic choices of their own someday. They become the adults who work through the rough spots in a good relationship and whose self-esteem in strong enough to avoid or get out of a bad one.
For many parents, actively loving kids is second nature. For others, especially for those who weren’t well-loved themselves, it’s sometimes more challenging. I’m sure this has been done before, but I’m going to weigh in with my own version of what L-O-V-E stands for as a friendly reminder of the basics for parenting well:
L is for setting loving limits. Both the loving and the limits are important. Love without limits doesn’t give children the training they need to manage the world. Love without limits teaches them the world owes them a living. They feel entitled to get what they want without respecting the rights of others. Limits without love does control kids’ behavior but it doesn’t teach them self-control or self-respect. Limits that are arbitrary and harsh teach the kids to be scared of their parents, not to respect them.
Done well, limits do provide safety and show kids what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Love is the ingredient that determines whether limits are about teaching our kids or only about controlling them. Limits that are said and done in a loving way let a child know we’re on their side, that we’re there to help, that we understand they need our guidance. Limits that lovingly adjust with a child’s growing sense of responsibility help our children grow into responsible adults.
O is for observing. The most frequently repeated phrase of normal childhood is “Look at me. Look at me.” Children are always checking for the grownups’ reactions. They want us to see their successes. They want and need our approval. They want us to really, really see them for who they are.
Kids who feel invisible to their parents either become withdrawn in discouragement or act up in order to be seen. Neither strategy works well in the family or in the world. Kids who are watched with love and approval keep trying to master new things and become confident that being their best selves is the way to get attention and inclusion.
V is for verbalizing our love. What makes Valentine’s Day so special is that it gives people the opportunity and permission to say what they feel. Kids do need this kind of affirmation every day. They need to be able to rest in the assurance that they are worthwhile and worthy of our love. They especially need to hear they are loved when they aren’t doing very lovable things. When they are regularly shown and told they are lovable and loved, kids and teens can accept correction and redirection without needing to be defensive. Kids who receive regular “I love yous” are kids who grow up knowing how to express love to their family members, and eventually, their own partners and children.
E is for enjoying our children. Kids need us to enjoy them as well as to care for them. They need us to play with them, joke with them, and generally be delighted with their efforts and little successes. They need us to want to spend time with them and to spend a little of life on their terms. That means reading the same story for the hundredth evening in a row with enthusiasm. That means getting out in the sandbox or down on the floor with the blocks and getting into the game. That means listening to our teen’s music with interest instead of criticism.
When kids feel like a burden or a disappointment or a major inconvenience in adult lives, they start to see themselves as defective and unworthy of love. Such children are vulnerable to depression. Some live down to the expectations of their parents and become unlovable by getting in trouble or being rebellious and difficult to manage. Kids who are enjoyed, however, are more likely to develop a strong self-esteem and self-confidence in the social world. Being a joy to parents feels good so they are more likely to be enjoyable.
By all means, make Valentine’s Day special. Any excuse to celebrate our families is fine with me. But let’s not forget that we can make valentine-ing into a verb; an action word for the many ways we provide L-O-V-E to our children every day. When we do, we both nurture them and draw more love, warmth, and affection into the family as a whole.