Expressing love and affection are important. They’re also easy to dole out. They don’t cost anything. They take less than five seconds to give, and make the people on the receiving end — your spouse, your kids, your relatives, your friends — feel good. “It tells us we matter, are valued, and are precious,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Princeton, New Jersey psychologist and author of Growing Friendships During the Coronavirus Pandemic. “It’s a public declaration. Saying it puts it right on the table.”
How love and affection are expressed is as crucial as why they are expressed. And there are certain things that fathers specifically should be sure to say to — or within earshot of — their children. Specific declarations of love. Simple appreciations. Expressions of intentions that demonstrate appreciation without saying it outright. Vocalizing such things are important, as often they are assumed and therefore unmentioned or said in the same way over and over. Will kids understand everything right away? Of course not. But they’re soaking it in. “They’re hearing whatever is valued,” says Catherine A. Sanderson, professor of psychology at Amherst College and author of Why We Act.
As much as your words are about the present moment, as a parent, you’re always thinking 10 steps or 10 years ahead and how you can set your kids up to thrive, love and be loved.
Here are just some of the ways:
1. “I love when you …”
The “when” here transforms “I love you” from the solid single into a home run because you’re giving a detail. It hinges on specifics. I love when you …read to the kids, …tell a story, …always greet me with a smile. “It feels like you’re really being seen for who you are,” Sanderson says. The alternative, “I really appreciate …”, followed with the same kind of specific does the same. The best part with either is that you already know the information. You just need to take a moment to think of it and then open your mouth.
2. “I’m glad I married you.”
In saying this, you’re telling your spouse — and having your kids understand — that the present and the future top whatever thrills you had in the past. And you’re a better version of yourself, all because of your partner. “It just conveys a delight that this person is in your life,” Kennedy-Moore says. The phrasing here is also important, as it expresses that while you’re happy you made the initial choice, you’re saying that you’d make it again and again and again.
3. “I really appreciate your company.”
This is good to say to anyone, but it’s especially great for kids. So much of the day is about staying on them about homework, cleaning up, and not hitting. And that stuff is tiring and involves evaluating how the child is doing. This comment has none of that. It’s just about letting them know how great they are and of all the places you could be, you want to be around them. “They feel a warm glow,” Kennedy-Moore says.
4. “Hold on. I gotta meet Mom at the door.”
It could be to hold it open, take her bag, give her a kiss. You’re telling your kids that at that moment, whatever else is going on, does not and will not take precedence over your sacred ritual, Kennedy-Moore says. Without any words, they’d probably pick up on your consistency and that this is one of many things that people who love each other do, but this a chance to go all-in and remove any doubt.
5. “I don’t agree, but we’ll do that.”
And it is said with no resentment or resignation. In saying this, you’re reflecting that in relationships people can argue, work it out, and the love always remains. Your spouse gets that from the comment, and the kids eventually get it as well, along with the message that when they mess up and you possibly get upset, that there’s no need to worry or wonder about how you ultimately feel about them, Sanderson says.
6. “I love you in a special [child’s name] way.”
It’s the impossible question from one of your children, “Who do you love the most?” You think the answer, “I love you equally,” cracks the code, but it doesn’t. “No one wants to be loved equally. It’s deeply unsatisfying,” Kennedy-Moore says. Your kid wants a superlative, so say the above and then rattle of reasons why: for the way you giggle, the way you tell jokes, the way you inhale pancakes. It’s the stuff that can only describe one person and that’s the stuff that’s satisfying.
7. “You gotta help me with Mom’s birthday.”
There’s always a place to conspire for noble purposes. You get them together and add, “She loves cards with poems. What are some good words to use?,” or ask, “What do you think she’d like?” They’re in on the plan, which kids love, Kennedy-Moore says, but along with seeing the behind-the-scenes planning that goes into a surprise, you’re getting them to consider another person’s preferences and that it’s not about what you want to do. It’s about what that person would love.
8. “Stuff happens.”
A hidden appreciation, buried in an acceptance that life is busy and things go pear-shaped all the time. Your spouse might have been late and messed up your plans, but you’re not mad. You realize that mistakes happen, people are imperfect and usually aren’t looking to do harm, especially those who are closest to you, Sanderson says. With this big picture attitude, your partner feels no need to play defense, and, one day, while your kids might not want to tell you that they accidentally broke a window, they’ll trust that you’ll be fair, because that’s how you’ve been.
9. “I totally screwed up.”
It’s the complement to “Stuff happens.” It could be that you forgot to go to the store, put out the trash, or were the one who was late. An apology doesn’t scream love and romance, but you’re not making excuses or crying, “Why didn’t you remind me?” You’re taking ownership, and that shows genuine respect and regard for your partner, Sanderson says. The kids see that and also that a quick, authentic apology does not need to be feared. Instead, it makes problems vanish before they ever appear.