I smiled nervously at my 7-year-old son and held my breath, waiting for the answer to my question. The wait was always unnerving; especially since I never had a clue as to what answer he would give.
“How can I be a better Daddy?” I had ventured.
The little boy looked earnestly at me, and replied in a soft gentle voice, “You could play more games with me.”
“Anything else? Is there any other thing I could do to be a better Daddy?”
“No, that’s all.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had gotten off easy this time.
I had learnt this approach some years back. The question “How can I be a better Daddy?” provides an insight into how we can affirm our children in a love language they understand. This principle is derived from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages of Children. Chapman describes the five love languages that we use to communicate, namely Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gift Giving, Acts of Service and Physical Touch.
Speaking My Child’s Love Language
Each of us communicates using a different language of love. For instance, my 7-year-old appreciates quality time, as evidenced from the conversation that I shared earlier. As such, he beams from ear to ear when I spend an entire evening playing games with him. It’s not so much the winning that he desires, but uninterrupted time with Daddy, especially after I spend so much time at work.
My 5-year-old’s love language is significantly different. I had a hint of it some years back when he would use me as a one-man obstacle course, climbing all over me, regardless of where we were. His love language is definitely that of physical touch, and the boy loves it when I treat him as my “pillow”, lying on him and massaging every inch of his body. It is true that I sometimes feel inadequate, given that I am not naturally inclined towards physical play, and am instead someone who relies more on my mind than on my hands to communicate and make a living. However I know that if I want to express love to my son, I have to communicate it in a way that he understands.
When we affirm our children, we need to do so in using methods they understand; and as I have shared at various parenting talks, this has to be communicated primarily through their love language. This is the first way we can really affirm our kids.
If I want to express love to my son, I have to communicate it in a way that he understands.
Being Intentional in Praise and Affirmation
The second way we can affirm our children is by being specific, using our words to empower our kids towards achieving greater success in their day-to-day accomplishments. This should not be generic, but purposeful and directed. For instance, when I first witnessed my son driving a car in Legoland, I made it a point to tell him that Daddy was proud of him. “Z, you drove very well. You are such a careful driver and you took time to make sure that no one was coming before you made your turns. Daddy is really proud of the way you drive!” And when you have two kids, it is crucial to ensure that you affirm both your kids. We may not be saying the same words for each child (because each one of them is different), but we can choose to affirm each of them commenting on a particular strength or on a specific positive behaviour.
When you have two kids, it is crucial that you affirm both based on their unique strengths.
It is far more meaningful for the child to learn the reason why he did well, rather than merely to hear a generic “Good boy!” or “Well done!” (For the record, we don’t use the words “good boy” or “naughty boy” as we want to encourage or discourage the behaviour, rather than make a comment on the inherent character of the child.)
So how do we really affirm our child? With a deep acceptance and appreciation of the developing person he or she is; and not for the behaviour that he or she exhibits. For our identity and personhood is largely nurtured from as far back as we can remember; and as young kids, it is our parents who help shape the foundations of what we feel about ourselves and how we deal with who we are as a person.
Mark Lim is the co-founder of The Social Factor, a consultancy firm which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, counselling, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 7 and 5.
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