Even though we might not say it out loud, every parent has been there. You give and you give and you give some more to your children, working to keep their cups overflowing with love, and you’re left feeling like you’re getting very little in return.

So that nagging little question forms – how do you get your child to love you back?! How can you teach him to show a little of that love every now and then? After all, isn’t it your job to make sure he enters into the world with that skill set and know how under his belt in order to be successful with his peers and in other relationships?!

The problem with all of this is in how we see the situation, which leads us to ask the wrong question. In seeing the situation as a “skill” that needs to be “taught”, we are naturally lead to ask ourselves what do we need to do to make our child be loving?

Should you tell them they have to kiss you before they say goodbye every time?
Should you insist they say “I love you” before they go to sleep each night?
Should you insist they prepare something nice for daddy on his birthday?

As soon as we get hung up in the to-do lists around “teaching” our children how to be loving, we have missed the whole point. I’m not saying that routines and traditions around this sort of thing are a bad idea. Having a way of “rolling” in terms of how you say goodbye and goodnight can be beautiful and lovely for children. But having expectations of them to care take of your emotions by making them say or do certain things… this just simply isn’t love. It’s merely actions. Whereas love – love is a feeling. And the kind of love you are actually yearning to see come bubbling out of your child’s heart is not going to be realized through scripted actions. Instead, it is only going to be realized when it spontaneously erupts from somewhere beautiful inside of them.

Let me tell you a story.

A couple of years ago, I launched a “24 days of lovin’ on your child” Christmas countdown. Every day we posted about little ideas, activities, crafts, and other ways to connect with your child. One of the activities was gifting your child the experience of having the surprise of your love literally enveloping them when they woke up in the morning. This was accomplished by cutting out a bunch of red felt hearts and sprinkling them all over your child while the slept. What a beautiful thing for a little one to awake to!

Well, one of our amazing Facebook followers took this suggestion on and as she sat cutting out red felt hearts under the cover of darkness to sprinkle on her sleeping 6 year-old son, she snapped a couple of pics and sent them along to me.

Cutting hearts at night 2 Cutting hearts at night

I remember her telling me that her boy LOVED what he awoke to that morning. He loved those hearts so much that he carefully scooped up each and every one of them and stowed them away in a special little box.

Fast forward a couple of years to last week. The hearts weren’t really ever talked about between now and then, and life had carried on. So imagine this mom’s surprise when she went to make her bed one recent morning and found under her pillow a treasured red felt heart. She sent me this beautiful picture with the simple description, “He shared one back <3”.

Heart under the pillow

That right there was love. Not an action as much as an emotion that bubbled up from somewhere deep inside that little boy’s now 8 year-old heart and moved him to, on his own accord with no prompting from anyone, unearth his treasured box of red felt hearts from its safe hiding spot, sneak into his parents’ room before bedtime, slip one under his mom’s pillow, and then quietly wait for her to find it in the morning.

How did this happen? Not because he was “taught” love through a series of scripted actions or requests. But rather because he experienced love by being on the receiving end of exactly the emotion he was now sharing. You see, you can’t teach a child to love. You can script actions – but that is different. To see love coming out of your child requires that they were first filled up to overflowing through the experience of being loved by you.

you can't teach a child love

Nurturing love – the kind of love that bubbles up from inside your soul – happens when you put exactly that kind of love into your child’s world. Day in. And day out. Through the grand gestures, but also through all of the little ones. The tousle of their hair. The quiet wink at the school assembly. The surprise of an extra story at bedtime at the end of a rough day. The treat of their favorite meal when they didn’t even ask for it. The all-knowing embrace that is delivered without request because you saw the need for it in their eyes. This is love.

And with that kind of experience of love all around, I promise you. It will come back.

Maybe not right away.
And maybe not when you expect it.
But it will.

And the experience of that full circle love is indeed the absolute heart of what it is to grow up children in the best possible way.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear friends.

Dr V