Picture this: A family of five sits around the kitchen table on a bright Saturday morning, enjoying breakfast together. Mom, Dad and their children talk about the coming weekend as pop music flows from an iPod dock near the pantry.
When the iPod begins to play Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” Dad puts down his fork, rises, takes his wife’s hand and says, “Madam, may I have this dance?” As Clapton’s soulful voice fills the room, the couple foxtrots around the kitchen.
These parents are not just enjoying a spontaneous moment of happiness. As they embrace and move around the room in unison, they’re giving their children a priceless gift that they’ll treasure throughout their lives: They’re teaching their kids how to love.
Children benefit greatly when their parents display affection toward one another on a regular basis. It makes them feel secure, knowing that their parents are committed to each other, and it sends a signal that their home is stable. Most importantly, children of parents who show affection get to see firsthand exactly what love looks like.
Good parenting involves more than feeding, clothing and protecting kids; it includes teaching them healthy relationship skills. And doing so goes far beyond conversing.
“Parents teach their kids about love by role modeling,” says Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre, a Catholic marriage and family therapist who, with her husband, Dr. John Yzaguirre, runs Irvine-based Thriving Families. “They must practice what they preach. If kids can see you and your spouse ‘walk the talk,’ that’s so powerful. You gain so much street cred with the kids.”
It’s very simple to model love and affection. Parents can greet each day with a kiss and a “love ya,” hug each other, hold hands, trade neck rubs – or dance together in the kitchen. They can leave each other appropriate love notes that the kids can see, make each other fancy meals, enjoy regular date nights and compliment each other, among many other things.
Frazier-Yzaguirre says it’s all about “robust empathy”: the ability to love in the way we want to be loved. A key factor is what she calls “intelligent love,” a practice that runs far deeper than just showing loving actions.
“The first step is to be genuinely interested in each other,” she says. “Be really interested in other people in the family. The second step is to find the time to learn about the needs and wishes of each other. Ask simply, ‘What do you need?’ That’s called the empathy question.” The third step, Frazier-Yzaguirre says, takes the famous marketing tag line from Nike: Just do it. “Consistently following up on what you know about your loved ones with action conveys love in a very concrete way,” she says.
Where do parents draw the line when it comes to showing affection? How much is too much? “If the parents are hooked in to the needs of their children, they’ll automatically know what is age-appropriate,” says Frazier-Yzaguirre. Will the kids get embarrassed? Sometimes. But these “eeewww” moments benefit them, and they sense this at a deep level.
Modeling love and affection has its spiritual elements.
“When we talk about raising our kids well – when we teach them how to be empathetic, loving and forgiving – that’s mirroring the image of God,” Frazier-Yzaguirre says. “When Jesus was getting ready to die, he said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’”
‘Tis the season do to just that, she adds.
“As we enter Advent, let’s prepare a home for Jesus in our home. We do that by using intelligent love.”