“I don’t understand it. I’ve raised both my kids the same way, and they’ve turned out completely different!” I’ve heard this exasperated claim many times. Have you said it yourself?
I remember reading all the parenting books and columns I could get my hands on while raising my son and daughter. I wanted to understand why I got one result when I applied a parenting principle to my son and a completely different result with my daughter. After all, they were raised in the same household, same parents, same rules, same religious foundation, same everything. What was I missing?
One very big factor: They are two entirely different people. Their personalities, perspectives, choices, passions, strengths, weaknesses – all different. Yet I was treating them the same, thinking “same” was a synonym for “fair.” It isn’t.
Being fair is being judicious, with consistent rules and consequences. Your son shouldn’t get to stay out later than your daughter. Your daughter shouldn’t do more chores than your son. And discipline for one shouldn’t be more extreme than the other.
But with different personalities, values and interests, your children shouldn’t be treated the same, any more than you treat all your friends or family members the exact same way. As adults, we’ve recognized that other adults respond differently to statements, actions, and expressions of love. We adapt our behavior and expectations accordingly.
Look at marriage. Is your spouse just like you? I’ve been married almost 31 years and I’m here to tell you, my husband and I are very different people. Yet we cohabitate peacefully, resolve differences quickly, and enjoy each other’s company. And we have a deep love for one another that hasn’t faded.
But how does that translate to our relationship to our children? Well, think about the Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman’s philosophy about how to relate to those who aren’t like us. He says that everyone has a Love Language, a way that they are most receptive to love, leading to cooperation and returned affection. Just as adults have love languages, children do too. And knowing their love language is tantamount to some of the best parenting principles out there.
The five Love Languages – Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gift Giving, and Acts of Service – represent how a person sees and feels love. For children of all ages, it looks like this
- Physical Touch – Hugs and kisses, sitting in close proximity, wrestling, back scratches, placing your hand on your child’s when talking, high-fiving, and snuggling all help these kids feel your love. While these same actions with another child can cause discomfort or embarrassment, the child who craves physical touch will count on it as a way to view your love.
- Words of Affirmation – You will know this is your child’s love language when their motivation and satisfaction grow as a result of verbal praise and recognition. These kids need to hear “I love you” and need you to tell them you’re proud of them. But be careful! They will quickly recognize false praise, as they are attuned to words and tone. Likewise, negative words cut to the core. So be sincere in your dialog and solve disputes through calm discussion, and they will respond!
- Quality Time – While all of us need human interaction and crave acceptance from others, kids who fall in this category base their view of relationships primarily on the amount and quality of time you spend with them. As you can imagine, these kids struggle when the two most important people in their lives are constantly at work or busy with other endeavors. It’s not that you need to be with them all the time, it’s that when you are, it needs to be about them, not about your phone, other people, or any other distractions. When they speak, look them directly in the eyes and give them your full attention. Make them feel that when you’re together, it’s only about the two of you.
- Giving gifts – These kids are thoughtful. It brings them joy to make others happy through gift giving. They put time and effort into their gifts because to them, giving to others is a true sign of love. In return, they gauge others’ love for them by the same measure. But don’t mistake expensive for valuable. What they are looking for is an understanding of who they are, what they like, and what brings them happiness. This can include homemade gifts, cookies baked just for them, or a handwritten card expressing your pride in their accomplishment.
- Acts of Service – No, these children do not expect you to be their servant, but they will feel the most loved when you serve them in a different way. Hosting their friends at your house; doing something when they ask you to do it, not in your own time; and making them feel valued by treating them respectfully, are all ways you can perform acts of service. Again, price is not a factor here. Stopping for a milkshake just because your daughter craves one is a small act that will bring big love rewards.
Figuring out who your children are and what makes them tick is the first step in knowing how to speak to them in the language that they appreciate. When that happens, the fact that your children are different will be a blessing rather than a curse.