Everyone thought they were a model family. They lived in a nice house. The children were clean and well-groomed. In church meetings, they were respectful and well-behaved. But at home, the family was less than ideal. There were no loud arguments or open cruelties, but neither were there the warmth and love that is found in a close family.
Parents often say that they love their children, that their children are most important in their lives. They agree wholeheartedly with Mormon, who said, “I love little children with a perfect love.” (Moro. 8:17.) Yet, sometimes, children—particularly teens—are the last to hear such expressions. They are left guessing at the true nature of their parents’ feelings for them. The following suggestions for demonstrating love and drawing closer to your children are simple and basic, but they work.
A frequent mistake made by parents is to put too much time and effort into areas that have no lasting significance in forming relationships with their children. Many parents, when asked how long it has been since they got down on the carpet with their children and played cars, rolled around or did tricks, or played sports with their children, say, “I haven’t done that for years,” or “I’ve never done that.” They have never had the time. The grass needed to be mowed or the garage cleaned. Paperwork at the office had to be finished or meetings attended.
But these same adults do not look back on their own childhood experiences to relish the memory of a dad who always had his paper work done in time to attend his meetings, or of a mom who always kept the house spotless. Rather, they treasure the memories of mom and dad stopping work to take time for a water fight or to help with a difficult math problem or just to talk. Some tasks do have to be done, but not at the expense of happy relationships.
A chronic complaint among teenagers and adults with poor self-esteem is that parents failed to take time to show interest in them. A father, whose son was serving a life sentence in prison, sat in a therapist’s office. He began to cry and said: “I remember when Eric used to ask me to play with him, and I always said I didn’t have time. I’d give anything in the world if he would ask me again.”
There is much truth in the old adage, “The family that prays together, stays together.” The same can probably be said of the family that plays together, works together, and strives for common goals and interests together. Doing things together creates a bond that can withstand pressures that would otherwise destroy a family unit. Family prayer provides a way for the family to meet together to feel not only the love within the family, but the love of Heavenly Father for their particular family. Our prophets have always urged us to have family prayer. Brigham Young said that we should call our families together daily “and bow before the Lord to offer up … thanksgiving for His mercies and providential care.” (History of the Church, 4:309.)
In a general conference, Elder O. Leslie Stone of the First Quorum of Seventy said that “one of the most important things you will need to remember is to get on your knees for family prayer.” (Ensign, May 1978, p. 58.) Children who often hear their parents thank their Heavenly Father for them and for their family will learn to feel good about themselves and to feel confident of their parents’ love.
Sundays and family home evenings provide two more excellent opportunities for meeting together as a family. These times can be used for a family home evening lesson, an appropriate activity, or a family counsel meeting where problems are discussed or plans are made. Holding a variety of activities gives each family member the chance to do something he enjoys.
Family home evenings are particularly effective when parents begin holding them while children are still very young. Starting them early provides a base of interaction and sharing that could be more difficult to establish with teenagers who are beginning to pursue their own interests.
Giving each child a few minutes of your full attention every day is another way to show love for them. Even a brief conversation at bedtime shows your children that you care about them as individuals. It also gives you a time to find out what they are doing, how they feel about school, their home, their friends, themselves, and you.
One successful parent reserves every Wednesday night to take one of his children out on a date. Each child has his turn and is allowed to decide, within reason, what he would like to do with his father. This practice has helped him remain close to his children during their growing-up years, even when peer group influence was great.
Other families have selected and worked on mutual goals which include gardening, raising animals, developing musical talents and the ability to perform together, pursuing sports and other recreational activities, writing and compiling family histories, and planning for special vacations.
Spend time alone with your spouse, too. One evening each week away from the house and children may provide needed refreshment. Couples who take time to nurture their relationship with each other find they have more time and energy for their children.
Several years ago, Elder Richard L. Evans, of the Council of the Twelve, wisely reminded parents to respond to a child “when he earnestly asks—remembering that they don’t always ask, that they aren’t always teachable, that they won’t always listen.” He continued, “If they find that they can trust us with their trivial questions, they may later trust us with more weighty ones.
“Young people are going to go to someone, somewhere. And we had better see that that ‘someone’ is ‘us,’ when the opportunity is ours.” (Richard L. Evans, Thoughts for One Hundred Days, Volume 5, Publishers Press: Salt Lake City, 1972, p. 115.)
Behavioral scientists and others have observed for years that poor listening skills are a major contributor to poor parent-child relationships. On the other hand, parents who skillfully listen and respond open the doors to meaningful, close, and lasting positive relationships with their children. Here are a few suggestions that can help:
1. Develop a habit of communication. Take a few minutes each day to listen to your child, particularly when he has a need to share a problem, accomplishment, or idea.
2. Give your child your undivided attention. Don’t read the newspaper or watch television at the same time. Your child needs to know that he is more important than the sports page or a television program.
3. Accept his ideas without being critical or judgmental. If he says something you feel should be corrected, wait until he has expressed himself and then proceed cautiously and with tact. He will only share his feelings as he feels secure in his relationship with you and as he feels you understand his feelings. Promoting your ideas may make him feel that you are inflexible and unwilling to understand. You can deal with problems which arise during these talks at a later time.
4. Occasionally share your understanding of what he has said to make sure you have heard and understood him correctly. Use information he has given you to further develop your relationship. If he feels nervous about a test he is taking at school, the night following the test, you might ask him how it went. Such follow-up will show him you care enough to remember his concerns.
5. Be genuine and sincere. Children can easily detect insincerity. A friend of mine who has always enjoyed family outings with his children told me of a neighbor boy who came to him asking if he could go fishing with him. The boy said, “My dad keeps telling me he really wants to go fishing with me, but it never happens. I’ve given up asking him because I know he’ll never do it.”
This past year I told my two oldest boys I wanted to start jogging with them on a regular basis. They were excited and wanted to start immediately. We first talked of it early in the year and because of the weather, I suggested we wait until it warmed up a little. In the meantime, I began jogging with some of my fellow employees at lunch time, which met my needs for exercise. However, as the weeks passed, my sons did not forget my promise and gave me several reminders. I’m sure the incongruity in my behavior became more apparent when I joined with some of our neighbors in weekend races sponsored by community organizations. Finally, one day, my son Steven said, “Dad, you broke your promise to us. You didn’t mean what you said when you told us you’d go jogging with us.” The hurt and disappointment on his face was a forceful reminder that I had indeed broken a promise and needed to make amends. Soon afterward, we began jogging together, and the experience improved our relationship.
Touching—a hug, a pat on the back, or an arm around the shoulder—is necessary for the emotional health of both children and adults. It communicates affection and interest and should be given often. Children deprived of touching often fail to develop adequate self-esteem and frequently manifest severe psychological problems. Without physical contact, children can develop an intense craving for affection which they may try to meet outside the home. This need has led many into premature physical relationships.
A therapist who specializes in the treatment of sexual deviancy states that a common expression among his clients is, “I can never remember my father embracing or even touching me.” In their emptiness for affection, his clients turned to members of the opposite—sometimes the same—sex. Sexual exploitation eventually becomes the substitute for genuine caring.
A father sat in the office of a counselor asking for guidance in how to help his teenage daughter who had recently become promiscuous. When his daughter was a child, he had been openly affectionate, hugging and kissing her and holding her hands. But as his daughter grew into a teenager, he withdrew these displays of affection.
As they discussed the situation, the father became aware of this deprivation in his daughter’s life and how his change in behavior affected her. He also came to realize that appropriate physical affection could and should be given. As he strove to rebuild his relationship with her, including the showing of affection, his daughter’s behavior and emotional well-being improved.
Most of these suggestions involve investing time with children and investments usually yield a return. As you follow these suggestions, you may find this return on your investment to be the best you have ever made. As one successful parent stated: “I always treated my children as my best friends. And you know what? That is what they have become.”
After reading “Daddy, Do You Love Me?” you may want to discuss the following with your spouse:
1. What can you do to make family prayer more meaningful and relevant to each family member?
2. What are you doing when your children “bother” you with a request or just to talk? What can you do (or stop doing) to make yourself more available to your children?
3. List as many ways as you can think of to spend time with your children. Try some of your ideas.
4. What do your children think about you, your home, their friends, school, and so forth ? If you are uncertain, how can you find out?
5. How often do you hug your children or put your arm around them? Could you show them more affection?