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 What Children Need to Hear from their Parents

Two things children need to hear regularly from their parents

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

I’m a parent of five children and grandparent of six. With my children’s 3 spouses, my mother, 8 living siblings, 9 in-laws and more than 30 nieces and nephews, we’re known in our region as a large, supportive, loving and close-knit family. So I’m occasionally asked about nurturing parent-child and other family relationships.

One of my favorite questions is: “What’s the most important thing I can say to my children?”

I reply that there are two things:

  • Tell your children “I love you” at least once every day.
  • Tell your children “We can’t afford it” at least once a week.

The reason why it’s essential to tell our children that we love them at least once a day should be obvious to any parent. To grow into healthy, happy and contributing adults, children desperately need to have a sense of being loved unconditionally.

Children are people who are just beginning to construct the worlds they will inhabit for the rest of their lives. If any element is to have a prominent place in these worlds, it not only needs to be introduced — it needs to be reinforced by repetition.

Children intrinsically know this. That’s why as soon as you have finished a bedtime story that engages their interest, they are likely to beg, “Again.” And whether or not you indulge them tonight, they will ask to hear the story again tomorrow night — and again and again after that. Sometimes they’re stalling to avoid going to sleep. But always they’re responding to a deeper need.

With the repetition that they crave, the story soon becomes their own and they can repeat, almost word for word as you turn the pages of the book. A caution: if you have told the story in your own words as you turned the pages, God have mercy on the poor babysitter who sits down with them and reads the text on the pages. (Even so, I heartily recommend that you improvise a bit; no one knows your child better than you do, so no one is more able than you to make the story come alive for them.)

Since repetition is important in the growth and development of a child, it’s important that we repeat that most important phrase over and over again to our children: “I love you.”

Of course, children most need loving when they are the least lovable. If that’s difficult for us as parents — and sometimes it is very difficult — it’s also a unique opportunity to impart a priceless lesson. You see, it’s when we love an unloving child that we teach them about unconditional love — in a way that transcends the power of words.

Of course, by loving an unloving child I do not mean giving into the demands and tantrums of a little out-of-control, self-centered brat. (I say that as a loving parent and grandparent who has seen his children and his grandchildren behave in just that way from time to time. Children are not naturally all good, and I love them no less when I accurately describe their behavior.)

The problem for parents is that if we reward that kind of behavior we are condemned to see more of it — and so will the child’s teachers and caregivers. Eventually, down the road, their would-be friends and lovers will see it too. In the heat of a battle of wills, we are inclined to think our only choices are giving in or giving back — that is, either acquiescing to their demands or responding as snottily as the child is acting.

But, in fact, neither of these options is a good one. Fortunately, there is a wide range of options between those two extremes. The key for every concerned parent is to explore what these options are long before you need to employ them.

Anna Freud, one of the founders of child psychology, wrote eloquently about how the indulged child is a neglected child — because, in fact, the parent is neglecting to provide the child with the guidance and direction he or she needs to emotionally develop into happy, healthy human beings. Imagine that! To indulge a child is to deprive a child — of many important things they need to become all that they can be. If you don’t remember that always, you will do more than imagine the consequences. You will have to endure them.

But why is it important that children have the experience of unconditional love? It is from the experience of unconditional love that children develop a sense of intrinsic worth. Without a strong sense of intrinsic value, they are easily led astray by temptations to “prove” their worth to peers and others who would exploit them.

Here is how that happens. Because children are intelligent beings who crave love, if they don’t experience unconditional love they come to learn and believe that the only way to get love is by meeting conditions set down by others. Soon enough they focus their development on earning love by doing the bidding of others. They actually begin to work on becoming dependent adults. With a little effort extended over a long period of time in pursuit of the worthy goal of earning love and being loved, they move ever deeper into a class of persons we call victims.

By now it should be clear why it’s important to tell our children “I love you” at least once a day — more often if you can, and always when they are least lovable.

Buy why is it important to tell our children at least once a week, “We can’t afford it?”

Because life has limits. Our job as parents is to help our children know and understand the nature of things, and they will never know much about the nature of life if they don’t come to realize that life is finite — it has limits. Saying “we can’t afford it” teaches them about the reality of life’s limits in a concrete way, long before they are able to conceptualize such a thing.

“But what if I can afford it?” a well-meaning and well-heeled mother once asked me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, when we go to the store, the things they ask for and eventually beg for aren’t that expensive. I can afford candy bars. I can afford whole bags of candy. I can afford the trinkets and little toys for which they beg. In fact, when I think about it, I realize that there’s nothing they want that I couldn’t buy. How can I honestly tell them I can’t afford it?”

I smiled. Her sense of “afford” was different than mine. But I saw an opportunity to share mine with another beleaguered parent who dreaded taking her children into a store and watching her turn into a monster.

“Can you afford to have children who grow up unable to accept ‘no’?, I asked. “Can you afford to have children who beg and throw tantrums every time they hear that word?” She was listening closely now.

“More important, can your children afford to grow up expecting that their every desire will be fulfilled? Can they afford to grow into adolescents who think everyone else owes them whatever it is they want at the moment? Can they afford to have completely self-centered and infinite expectations? How will they ever be happy? Won’t these expectations hold them back, cripple them, expose them to constant frustration and pain, render them unable to have mutually respectful and affectionate relationships? Can they afford that? In other words, can they afford to be always disappointed? And can you afford to see that happen to your own dear child?

“I never looked at it that way,” the dear mother said.

“That’s because you thought of ‘affording’ only in terms of money, not in terms of some vastly more valuable considerations in your life and in theirs,” I explained.

When we tell our children “we can’t afford it,” what we are saying is: “We can’t afford to mess up your growth and development as a person — we can’t afford to mess up your life forever — by failing to teach you that life has limits. It always has limits. Every facet of it has limits.”

I continued with a smile: “Of course, no one can be faulted for trying to extend those limits. That’s human nature. On the plus side, it drives progress. But the person who is not taught to recognize the existence of limits — who cannot get over them and who takes them personally — is not the kind of person who brings progress to the human community.

“Instead of lighting the candle of progress, they spend their lives cursing the darkness — pouting, obsessing, conniving, deceiving, doing anything to get their way and indulge their will. If that’s the way they are trained, that’s the way they generally turn out.”

The well-meaning mother did not look very happy. But I was not finished.

“Let’s turn the clock ahead 15 or 20 years. What if at some point it finally becomes absolutely clear to that indulged child that they are not going to get something they desperately want? How are they going to cope with that disappointment if they have never been disappointed before?” I asked.

“Would it not be ironically cruel if the important thing they are losing is a relationship — and the reason they are losing it is that they are unable to cope with anything but their own indulgence? Can they afford that? Can you afford to see it happen to them?”

Solemnly she shook her head, “No,” she said.

I continued: “Adults need to have a sense of realistic expectations. It is a good thing to adopt goals that try to stretch the possibilities in life. But it is not good or realistic to think that you will get whatever you want simply because you want it, because you insist on it, because you demand it. You will not, for example, ever get love on this basis.”

The well-meaning mother was ready to speak. “What you are saying is that no one can afford to learn or be taught, either intentionally or by indulgence, that you will always get what you want. And no one can afford the agony that comes from learning this lesson about limits the hard way — later in life when the stakes are higher and perhaps it costs us someone we dearly want to love.”

“That’s true,” I replied. “The lesson of limits is much easier to learn when we are young. That’s when we most easily learn that not only are there limits, but that we must — and can — cope with these limits, and that life can and will be better for having learned this lesson.

“That’s why it’s important to say to your children at least once a week, “We can’t afford it.”

Of course, actions speak louder than words — and our children learn more from what we do than from what we say.

How do I know? Try this simple experiment.

  • Think deeply for a moment about one of your parents — the one that had the most positive influence on you if both didn’t.
  • Now try to name the most important thing you learned from them.

Did this learning come from something they said or something they did?

I have tried this experiment in groups all over the U.S. and the answer has never varied. What every adult remembers as the most important lesson they learned from a parent grew out of something the parent did rather than something the parent said.

Think about that. The real legacy you leave your children, the really powerful lessons you teach them are not the things you tell them, no matter how carefully, consistently and constantly you tell them.

The most powerful lesson you will ever teach — the lasting one that does more than anything else to shape your child’s life — is the life you lead.

So if you want to leave your children with the two lessons I proposed above, ask yourself these questions every day.

  • Does my life express the love I feel?
  • How do I cope with limits I encounter?

If you want the best for your children, as I’m sure you do, focus on how you live — on the expectations you have and the choices you make.

What you say to them is important because it is a part of how you live, but it is not the only part and, in the final analysis, it is not the most important part either.

Live, love, learn and leave a legacy. You will prosper. And so will your children.

© Copyright Owen Phelps, 2005.