It’s Valentine’s week and I find that kids often get into this holiday more than adults do. It seems weird to talk about how to love your kids because that’s not something you usually need to ask people to do. But I saw something eye opening recently that made me think about how we love our kids and what it means to love our kids. A little disclaimer: this is a message to anyone who has kids in their lives. To simplify, I’ll say “your kids” but know that can mean grandkids, nieces and nephews, youth group kids, godchildren, you name it. If God has put kids in your circle to love and encourage, this message is for you too.
A little backstory: my family has been watching a show on Hulu called, “The Parent Test” where parents who have certain parenting styles are asked to do some challenges and the other parents in the room get to decide if their style is effective. I assumed the show would be a bunch of parents shaming one another since that’s what most reality TV is, but actually, I’ve found the parents to be very supportive on the whole. There was one moment that really challenged me though. The families were supposed to have a “yes day” where they stayed at home, but had to say yes to anything the kids suggested. In one of the families, the parents announced, “It’s yes day! What should we do?” Their kids’ response was immediate, “No phones!”
They had the opportunity to ask for anything and their gut reaction was they wanted the undivided attention of their parents. Being a kid of the 80’s we joke about how our parents were much more free-range than we are today. I remember playing outside all day, jumping from yard to yard without a care. In contrast, my kids are almost never out of my sight unless they’re at school or church. It’s just a different world, and those of us who have a tendency to be helicopter parents feel justified by all the scary stuff out there. But just because we helicopter, doesn’t mean we’re actually giving them the attention they need.
Listen, I’m a stay-at-home mom with all my kids in school, so it’s probably annoying for you to hear this from me. Your day probably looks very different from mine. You may only have the roughly 4 hours between getting off work and collapsing in bed to do all the laundry, cooking, cleaning, bedtime routines, following up on calls, planning, and getting kids to their activities. So, know that I understand we all have different challenges, but I’d love to share some ways I’m trying to be more intentional with my kids.
1. Put away distractions.
The request of “No phones” stuck with me because I know I’m guilty of that. Typically, when my phone is in my hand, I’m not doing something important. I’m usually scrolling or watching someone decorate cookies. Why are those videos so irresistible? Having my phone in my hand is a habit that makes me unapproachable and it takes energy from me I don’t have to spare. If we can break the habit, and when we actually have something urgent to tend to on our phones, we can do it without feeling bad about it. We have a charger in our kitchen, I’ve found that if I keep my phone on the charger, I’m not so quick to pick it up for no reason, but it’s handy (and fully charged) when I do need to use it.
2. Make eye contact.
This is advice I often give. Sadly, in our culture, simply looking someone in the eye feels like a compliment. It should feel like the bare minimum, but it’s not. I tell my kids to do this with their teacher, friends, the person handing you something at a drive-thru, etc. But often, when my kids want to talk to me, I fail to give them eye contact. I figured this out once when I made a conscious effort to make eye-contact and one of my kids said, “Why are you doing that?” But as much as you can, get on their level and look at them when they talk to you.
3. Ask questions.
This is active listening 101, but it’s always a good reminder. We all feel loved and cared for when people listen to what we say and follow up questions are evidence that someone is listening. So, when I ask my kids how their day was, and they actually have an answer, I try to keep the conversation going by asking questions rather than just giving a lazy response like, “That’s great honey.” If your kids don’t give much of a response to “How was your day?” check out some of these alternative conversation starters. Also, I try not to ask questions for the first 5-10 minutes when they get home because a few minutes to decompress and enjoy the silence is helpful for them. My kids ride the bus home and that’s a situation that can leave them feeling overstimulated. (Just thinking about it makes my heart race.) So, give them a hug and a little silence when they enter the house.
4. Involve them.
Some of the tasks we need to get done each day are actually fun for kids. Because my oldest has after school rehearsals right now, my sixth grade son comes home first. Last week, I was planning on trying out a new cookie recipe and thought about doing it earlier in the day. But then it occurred to me -I have this little sliver of time with just my one son after school and I should do a better job of capitalizing on it. So, I waited and when he got home, I said, “Wash your hands! We have some cookies to bake.” The smile on his face was incredible! He was so pumped to make (and taste test) them. If you have to go to the store, have a kid go along. Windshield time is wonderful, especially for middle school boys. There’s something about being in the car that they just open up. Maybe don’t go to the store closest to your house. Take a few minutes to connect. We can’t simply ignore the things on our “to do” list, but as much as we can, let’s use them to connect with our kids.
5. Find ways to encourage them daily.
A note in the lunchbox or in a kids’ folder goes a long way. If you’re kid has a phone, text them something encouraging (when they’re in a place where texts won’t get them in trouble, of course). I used to hate it when my students were texting and I’d tell them to stop and they’d say, “It’s my mom.” Or maybe that’s just what they said. Who knows? Anyway, use a dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror or put note in a bag they use for dance or sports. Get creative and don’t worry too much about being super eloquent. A simple, “I’m proud of you,” is enough. These little connections help remind them they have a strong support system within easy reach and it reiterates that home is a safe place.
Please know I’m not suggesting you give your kids undivided attention every minute of the day. If you happen to have more than one kid, that’s mathematically impossible. We don’t want kids who can’t entertain themselves or who are so doted on they can’t function in society. But being present and making daily, intentional connections is really important for your kids to know they can come to you with all the little things and big things in their world. We’ve all had those days where our kids demand a lot of our attention. Maybe your elementary age kid is explaining a video game to you. Seriously, I think they should use 10-year-old video game enthusiasts for interrogations. A few minutes with the kid and they’ll confess just to make it stop. Of course I’m kidding (sort of). But on those days, when my kids are super demanding of my attention, typically they’re reacting to something. And if I’d simply stop what I’m doing, look them in the eye, listen, and even ask a follow up question or two, they wouldn’t feel the need to demand my attention. Because they have it.
For more tips on loving your kids well, I recommend 365 Ways to Love Your Child: Turning Little Moments into Lasting Memories by Julie Lavender. It’s a wonderful resource. And even though Valentine’s Day will be over soon, use the whole month of February to start some new habits that will strengthen your relationships with your kids. If they know you love and support them, they may not feel the need to go somewhere else for validation and attention -a recipe for disaster in their teens. Parenting is hard. We all fail more than we succeed, but the key is to keep trying and keep loving our kids. They don’t need to see you being perfect. They just need to see that you care.
Happy Valentine’s Day!