Dads today have more freedom and less judgement to love their kids the way they want to. But there’s an important challenge to go further and love your kids according to their love language.
If you’ve never heard of the concept of love languages, you’ll wonder what I’m talking about. Don’t keep reading this. Pause and watch this simple explainer video for 5 minutes. It’s a game changer.
As a reminder, there are five love languages: 1) kind and encouraging words 2) shared time together 3) gifts and presents 4) physical touch 5) helpful acts of service.
My own love language is kind, encouraging words. My wife’s love language is a combination of quality time together and receiving gifts. The application here is for how you love your spouse, but I think every person has love languages – ways they prefer or particularly feel loved. And the same principle can be applied to a range of relationships - including with our kids.
The way each of my kids likes to be loved is different.
For one, it’s affirming words of encouragement and quality time together. For another it’s physical touch, they simply love being picked up and cuddled. It shows in the way they say hello when I come in the door. It shows itself when i say goodnight. For one, that quality time together means story time before bed is crucial in knowing they’re loved. For the other, story time without sitting on my lap is a bit of a disappointment, and long cuddles once they’re tucked up in bed is far more important.
The key insight about love languages is that we often confuse the way we like to be loved with the way others like to be loved. It’s easier for me to love someone the way I like to be loved (it just comes more naturally), and it can genuinely feel like I'm doing a good job. I can feel like I'm being a very present and attentive dad by loving my kids in a way that I'm comfortable with.
But being a great dad means understanding their love language. If your kid needs words of affirmation, they won’t feel particularly loved if you use the opportunity to share all the practical ways you care for them. When they need a cuddle, kids won’t feel loved if you’re only willing to stand at a distance and offer them words of encouragement.
Growing up, if you were never hugged and kissed by your dad, it can be hard to show that level of affection to your own kids. But this cannot be an excuse for not giving your kids the hugs and kisses they might want from you.
If this sounds demanding, that's because it is. It’s a world away from how we might instinctively respond when our kids ask for something; offering only what we’re comfortable giving rather than what they need from us. But speaking someone’s love language means reaching for something beyond ourselves, choosing to love them in a way that we’re maybe unfamiliar with. It's self sacrificial, and that's really the underlying definition of what love is.
What makes all this even more challenging is that love languages can change, and they’re not binary. In other words, we need some portion of each of them at any given time; and in different seasons of life, what makes us feel most loved can change.
There are other challenges in applying this principle to our kids as well.
First, kids can’t communicate clearly the way they need love and attention with words. So that means you need better listening than you might with an adult. You need to work harder to figure out what makes them tick.
Second, because behind any one of those love languages, kids needs are much greater than adults. Kids need a lot more physical contact, they need many more words of encouragement and their practical needs are endless. You're going to have to go further than you would expect with an adult to convey your love.
Third, because changes in a kid's love language are magnified by the speed at which they grow. Sudden growth spurts or dramatically changing life situations (starting school) all will effect the love they need at any given point in time.
Being a great Dad means figuring out and learning to speak your kid's love language. And this mean you really need to know your kids. To really pay attention. To really listen and keep on doing that as they grow up.
I think this idea, mixed with quickly the role of 'dad' has changed makes this doubly hard for many dads today. In our corner of the world, the role of ‘Dad’ in a kid’s life might just be the greatest relationship change in the family over the past 60 years. What our father’s will have experienced of their fathers; what they passed onto us; and what our kids (and their mothers) might expect of us just two generations later is radically different. Many don't have great role models and that makes it very difficult.
I want my kids to know I love them, and I’m personally determined that they don’t grow up wondering whether that was the case simply because I never really showed love in the way they most liked to be loved.