Two true stories today, modified only to protect the reputations of the innocent.
Story 1. In the holiday-crowded aisle of a big box store, a three-year-old girl, with her mouth wrapped around three fingers of one hand, reaches up her other to grasp her mother's hand, trying to pluck it off the hem of the hanging garment Mom is examining. With a snarled, "Stop it. I'm busy," Mom smacks away the child's hand. The child begins to wail a thin, keening cry around the fingers still in her mouth.
Story 2. At one of those all-inclusive Carribean resorts, at the point where the pool enclosure gave way to a beach packed with snowbirds on that winter weekend, a young father kneels next to his three-year-old daughter. Fiercely sucking one thumb, she eyes the crowd of strangers between her and the ocean waves, as Dad says, in very matter of fact tones, as if talking to another adult...
"Well, here's the beach, honey. It looks pretty crowded today. I'd feel safer if I could hold your hand. Is that okay with you?" Pulling her thumb smartly out of her mouth with a loud pop, his daughter replieds firmly, "Dad, don't be scared. They're just people like us." before marching onto the sand in the direction of the sea. After a few steps, she looks back and continues, "Come on, Dad. It's okay. See?" as she opens her arms in a wide embrace and twists left and right to include the whole of humanity that she can see.
The crux of the difference in these two stories is knowing what love looks like to a child.
I dare say that each of these parents, if asked, would affirm love for her or his child. Even in that very moment of the publicly-smacked hand, the mom at the big box store believes she loves her child. Still, she may be raising a child who isn't sure she is loved. In Story 1, Mom was not speaking her child's love language, and probably rarely had done so.
The dad in Story 2 is clearly tuned in to his daughter's love lexicon and has been for some time.
Children have their own, unique ways of connecting with the adults in their lives. Yet, there are also developmental love languages -- ways to show love by connecting to the child's developmental task of the moment. At each age in their crucial early years from birth to seven, our ongoing conversations with children can give them the very tools they need to succeed in their developmental journeys.
In the first year of life, love is best seen by our needy newborns and young infants, when spoken in the language of "I am here for you." The language of comfort recognizes and honors both our role as the caregiver and Baby's role as she who is learning to be comforted, to trust that there will always be someone there in times of distress and need. Here I am. Here's your milk. Hush, hush, it's alright now. I've got you. You're okay.
In the second year of life, love is best heard by our adamantly independent toddlers, in the language of "I see who you are." They yearn to hear the words that tell them we are aware of and understand their pre-language communication efforts to share what they think, feel, and want. You want that ball; I see you reaching for it. You're laughing about the bubbles; they make you happy. I see your sadness in your tears. Oh, my! Your red face and clenched fists tell me that you are really MAD!
In the third year of life, love is best felt by our stretching and dreaming young preschoolers, in the language of "I believe in you." Threes want to know that they can reach for the stars without being held back by our adult fears and limiting beliefs. Of course you can do that. We should always try! Let's see what else we can discover! Oh, show me! Tell me more! You are strong/powerful/ capable/energetic/striving/dedicated/determined. I know you can do it!
Admitting that I am a complete geek for Call the Midwife, I end with this quote from "Mature Jenny," the show's narrator, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave. "Children must be loved. There's no rule of life so simple or so true." (2017, Season 6, Episode 8) The second rule is that we must share that love in languages the child can recognize as her own.
So simple. And so true.