The Roman poet Virgil said love conquers all things. As a father, I have come to realize that, while saying “I love you” does express my unequivocal love for my child, and to who we are to one another, it’s better to exhibit concrete behaviors that nourish our emotional connection. A simple declaration of love, is the nutritional equivalent of an empty calorie.
This isn’t to say I don’t tell my son I love him. I do so frequently. It’s just that when I say ‘I love you,’ to my son, that feeling I share with him is a result of behaviors I’ve tried to consistently express as a father. These include explicitly communicating five things through my behaviors: that he is safe with me, that I hear him, that I acknowledge him, that I take him seriously, and that I approve of him one hundred percent of the time. Here is what I do.
1. I Am Calm
No matter what my son says, I make sure that his words cause me to engage him further. I never emotionally or physically retaliate, threaten, or frighten him. I imagine myself sitting back, legs crossed. This demeanor invites him to articulate his thoughts and feelings without hesitation.
2. I Am Engaged
In my experience, the very first thing children need to know—in advance of a yes, or a no, or a maybe—is that they are heard, meaning that they count. I understand that if my son believes that I don’t hear him, he may also believe that I don’t care about him, that who he is doesn’t matter. I remind myself that feeling heard is directly related to his self-image and self-esteem.
3. I Offer Acknowledgement
I recognize his efforts, his successes, his challenges, and even his failures, as legitimate expressions of who he is. Acknowledgment also means that I must work not turn my son’s experience into mine. For example, if he gets cut from a team, I don’t tell him what I would have done. I just tell ask him to tell me if he feels there is something better he could have done.
4. I Try to Never Be Dismissive
My son needs to know that his words and feelings are important to me. They are never frivolous. So I do not make fun of, dismiss, sneer, laugh, or in any way shape or form denigrate his feelings. This extends to every single interaction — even if he thinks he saw a ghost in his room the night before. I don’t laugh. I ask him what he saw and heard.
5. While I May Disapprove of His Actions, I Never Disapprove of Him
As a parent, it has been my obligation to remind my son (as a child, and even as an adult) that my disapproval or distress over his actions and/or words bears no relationship to my immutable approval of him. When he wanted a tattoo, he wondered if I’d hate him if he got it. I simply responded that I wouldn’t hate him — just the tattoo itself.