In the Book Basket: The 5 Love Languages of Children

This past summer, I had a conversation with my husband about how to reach out to our children, with their individual personalities and needs. I was feeling discouraged by my terrible qualifications for motherhood: namely, feeling burnt out all the time. I said, “I love them with every fibre of my being. I would die for them. But all this love is a USELESS SENTIMENT if I don’t find a way to show it.”

     Not long after, my friend Jen, who’s already very big-hearted and attuned to people’s needs, decided that what we mamas needed to kickstart the school year was a mini book club devoted to one book: The Five Love Languages of Children (Gary Chapman, 2012). As Jen predicted, most of us felt starved for fresh ideas, fresh tools to help us in this sometimes mountainous journey of parenting.

     The book is written for people who want to do a better job loving their children. (Yes, that’s pretty much all of us!) It aims to give parents positive tools to fill our child’s emotional needs, the “emotional love tank” as the authors call it, something we mothers do on a minute-to-minute basis. There is nothing more important in the world we can do, and yet we’re frustratingly limited. We’re often tired, rushed, ill, or just too busy filling basic needs, going through the motions of feeding and clothing, while tone-deaf to the needs of their heart.

     You might remember the dinosaur days when 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman, 1995), was published and was making the rounds on coffee tables and night tables. (Blogs weren’t invented yet.) Gary Chapman identified five major ways that human beings express and seek love in relationship: through physical touch, giving gifts, acts of service, quality time together, words of affirmation. These “five languages” have entered the jargon of common life. I never read the book but I’m familiar with the expressions, and I try to speak my husband’s love languages and make him aware of mine. We see wonderful results when we really try.

     The 5 Love Languages of Children applies the same ideas to the fragile and urgent emotional needs of children. First, it walks you through the five love languages and how they might look in a child’s life. Then it helps you  identify your own child’s love language, by observing your child. How does your child express love to you? Is your child verbal? Physical? Does your child give you gifts? Love to do little services for you? You are probably seeing your child’s own love language and a key to their emotional health. Our son Hugh, for example is a great gift giver. He spends most evenings before bed stitching little bags or drawing pictures for people. Sometimes his gift is simply a cool rock or leaf he found outdoors. Material possessions mean a lot to Hugh. So it’s no surprise that Hugh gets great emotional satisfaction from a gift from his mom and dad. This doesn’t mean we spend a lot of money. A “gift” could mean a special pancake shaped like an “H” when we’re having pancakes, or an old calendar to cut up. But when I say, “I thought you’d love this,” he knows it comes from my heart.

     Another diagnostic tool is: what does your child request most often? For example, if your child often comes to you  to show off his or her achievements: art, homework, new outfits etc, he is probably looking for words of affirmation. Another tool of observation is to notice what your child complains about. For example, complaining that “you never have time to play with me!” might mean your child is hankering for quality time.

     The author also provides a script for conversation with your child to help you find his or her love language. Give your child a choice between two options, each representing a different love language. For example, you might say to your son or daughter, “I have some free time Saturday. Would you rather…” Personally, I found this diagnostic tool useless because my children just gave me odd misgiving looks, like “Why are we having this weird, artificial conversation?”  But for some families it might be a fun game.

     The 5 Love Languages of Children is not just about positive emotions. The book has several chapters on what to do with negative emotions, especially anger. In my opinion, this was the most important, even crucial chapter for all families, even families who don’t have an “anger problem.” Anger is a natural human emotion, like sadness, joy, grief, embarrassment. It’s a normal response to frustration or hostility, and it’s found in every household, no matter how gentle and intentional our parenting; and yet, more than any other emotion, anger can tear down relationships. Teaching our children to divert anger (without becoming passive-aggressive!) is a life skill that will bless their adult years as they become husbands, wives, co-workers, friends, administrators. Coming from a family where anger was perpetually buried, I understand how important it is to learn to acknowledge anger, confront people peacefully, and resolve problems.

     When I was reading this book, I can honestly say I found the key to three of my children’s emotional health in as many days. After trying a few changes, I saw positive results almost immediately in their mood, confidence, and overall happiness. For example, I have a touchy-feely, squirmy-wormy, rowdy six year old. As a nursing mother, I often approach story time with a modicum of dread. I feel a little “touched out”. I want space while I nurse. I feel myself getting cross with the squirmer. After reading the chapter on physical touch, I decided to make one small change. Next story time, I finished nursing the baby, put her down on the floor, took my six-year-old on my knee and gave him a big squeeze. Then I read him a story while holding him on my lap. This small change made a huge difference. After the story he jumped off my lap, said “thanks, Mum,” and ran off to play with his brother. Over the next several days I tried to preempt his needs by starting the day with a story and cuddle. Almost immediately he stopped “pestering me”. He no longer hurled himself at my body when he wanted to say something or climbed all over me when I sat down. Now, when he begins throwing himself at people, climbing on them, tickling them, running his fingers along their arms, that’s a sign to me that I’ve neglected his “love tank” and that he needs my intentional, gentle physical touch. Sure enough, a few cuddles with a story is all he needs.

     That was just one example. Some love languages are harder to implement, and of course some ages are more difficult, like the teenage years. Also, the book does not address the languages of children with special needs like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. So if you have a child with social or mental health challenges you would need to look elsewhere for resources. Also, it’s primarily written for parents of one or two children. The amount of suggestions, do’s and don’ts it offers could be overwhelming if you tried to implement them in a big family. For example, the suggestions for “quality time” in the cascade of daily life when there’s barely time to shower: “Go for a special shopping trip together” makes no sense when your calendar looks like ours! I take “quality time” to mean “let’s do chores together”! Working together side by side, I give my “quality time child” my full attention when he talks, listening to his bad puns or his long explanations of lego engineering, and being silly together. I would rather get the job done quickly, but this together time is worth more to him than a million “I love you’s”. Or I might let him ride shotgun in the car on our way to soccer or the grocery store. Some of our best conversations have happened while driving. This is especially true for the child who craves quality time but doesn’t like it to be all about him or her: sometimes it’s easier to discuss personal problems and heavy issues when you’re staring out the window.

     What I took away with me from The 5 Love Languages of Children was not a recipe but a new way of looking at my children. To really observe my child and try to understand what his or her behaviour could tell me.  It’s almost laughably simple. I consider myself a fairly intuitive mother, but I wasn’t getting my children’s emotional cues until I learned what to look for. I love that The 5 Love Languages of Children offers such simple solutions, too. I’m looking forward to a new chapter in our home with happier, more peaceful children.