It has always been magical when our children say I love you for the first time, spontaneously, and without provocation.
About a week ago, our one year old daughter, Tiana, climbed onto our bed, maneuvered herself towards Edric, and said “love you.” It was so precious, as she hugged him at the same time. Of course, Edric dropped every single thing that he was doing and reciprocated with his utmost attention and a big hug. “I love you, too!” he said.
I watched this whole interchange from my side of the bed and could not resist inserting myself into their moment. “What about mommy?” I asked, reaching out my arms and hoping for another “Love you.” (Okay, so her I love you to me was not as spontaneous.) She flung herself in my direction and I caught her in my arms as she said, “Love you!”
At what point does a child understand what I love you means? It’s hard to tell. I have had four kids say their first “I love you” at different times. But saying it and knowing what it really means is a world of difference.
Edric and I often have to demonstrate what I love you means. So gestures of affection, quality time, saying sorry and being willing to forgive, and acts of thoughtfulness and kindness are all part of showing our children what it means to love.
The other day, when we were playing a board game called Catan with our children, I saw Edric demonstrate love for the kids.There is a rule in the game where you can “steal” resources from your opponents by placing a pawn-like figurine on their land. Edric had the opportunity to steal a resource card from me and being the very competitive person that he is, he jumped at the opportunity. It was not really a big deal because it was part of game play, but it bothered my five year old son. He said, “Daddy, why will you steal a card from mom?
Edric said, “It’s part of the game, Edan. You know daddy loves mommy. This is just a game.”
“But, stealing is not loving right? Why will you steal from mommy if you love her?” Edan responded.
I thought it was a hilarious discussion and Edric could have justified his actions, but he decided to be sensitive to Edan. As much as he needed that move, he decided NOT to take my resource card so that Edan would not “stumble.” He said, “I want you guys to know that I love your mom. I won’t take her card.”
I know my husband. He is very competitive. So, not taking my card was definitely a sacrifice! But he wanted to demonstrate to the kids what love means. And it worked! Edan smiled and his conscience was eased. During the game none of the kids wanted to take resource cards from one another either! They wanted to be loving towards each other. (And, even if we removed the “stealing” part of the game, it was still challenging and fun for everyone.)
The point of this simple story is that we can say I love you at home, but love is an action word. It is especially important that our children see love demonstrated in the marriage of their parents. If Edric and I do not act or speak in loving ways to one another, what makes us think that our children will grow up really understanding what love means?
1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…”
Honestly, I find that it is harder to apply this definition of love in the context of marriage than parenting! I suppose it is because I have higher expectations of Edric than of my kids.
For example, each time I have a baby, I know that sleepless nights, diaper changing, and loss of control over my schedule are inevitable realities. I understand that my love for my babies requires sacrifice. But I rise up to the challenge without expecting any sort of reciprocation from them. I love them no matter what.
In marriage, however, it’s a little more challenging. Selfishness so easily finds its way in. And this is the ultimate relationship killer! When my relationship to Edric becomes all about my needs and wants, this mindset leads to conflict and disrespectful behavior on my part.
In fact, at the beginning of my marriage, I focused too much on what I was not getting out of the marriage. In my mind, there was no exit, but I was enduring and not enjoying my marriage. My heart grew cold and critical. At the same time, Edric’s romantic feelings toward me started to wane. He no longer saw me as the fun and sweet woman he fell in love with because I was so negative!
Where did the love go? Well, we still loved each other but we were both frustrated. We did not quite understand what love meant.
I like the definition that my parents share during their marriage and parenting seminars. “UNCONDITIONAL LOVE IS A COMMITMENT TO AN IMPERFECT PERSON, FOR THEIR HIGHEST GOOD, WHICH OFTEN REQUIRES SACRIFICE.”
Edric and I had to acknowledge that we were imperfect people married to imperfect people and without God at the center of our marriage, we would have a helplessly imperfect marriage. We both focused on what we needed to change in ourselves and not each other. We sought the Lord, prayed for one another, and grew in intimacy with him. As we did so, we desired to follow his principles and our marriage naturally became sweeter and more loving.
And as our family began to grow, it became even more apparent that the best way to love our kids was to love God first, love each other as husband and wife and then love them — in that order. Edric’s dad used to tell him, “One of the best ways to show your children that you love them is to love your spouse. ” I would like to add that the best way to love your spouse is to love God first, to seek him and obey his principles. And of course, to avoid having a self-centered perspective!
Our children may frequently say I love you to us and to one another, but our responsibility is to teach them what those words really mean. After all, I love you is much more than a magical feeling. It is UNCONDITIONAL. It is a COMMITMENT. It is directed towards an IMPERFECT PERSON. It desires their HIGHEST GOOD. It will often require SACRIFICE.
Can we prepare our children to love like that? Let us start with our spouse!
We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19 NASB)