Dr. Gary Chapman is a bestselling author of The Five Love Languages book series. Today we're going to specifically talk about love languages when it comes to kids and how we can better communicate with our children. Make sure to check out 5lovelanguages.com to take the quiz with your kids!
Let's just start by you telling us a little bit about each language and where this came from for you, in case people aren't familiar with this concept.
I first discovered the love languages in my counseling with couples. They would sit in my office and the wife would say, "I just feel like he doesn't love me." Then the husband would say, "I don't understand, because I do this and this and this. Why would you not feel loved?" I knew people were missing each other, even though they were trying to express love. I just kept hearing similar stories over and over. So eventually I took the time and sat down and read several years of notes I'd made in counseling, and asked myself when someone says, "I feel like my spouse doesn't love me" what did they want? What were they complaining about? Their answers fell into five categories that I later called the Five Love Languages. I worked with couples, but also with families, and I sensed the same thing was true about children. So in the original book, I had one chapter on how this applies to children and people wanted more on children specifically. So I wrote a second edition and that is the Five Love Languages of Children written to parents on how to effectively love children. So here they are: the first one is words of affirmation. Using words to affirm the other person. There's an ancient Hebrew proverb that says life and death is in the power of the tone. We can kill each other or we can give each other life by the way we talk. And for some people it's affirming words that really communicate to them your love. It could be about the way they look, it can be something they did, it can be a personality trait that you like. You're just giving them affirming words. The second love language is acts of service. Doing something for the other person that you know they would like for you to do. In marriage, that would be washing the dishes, vacuuming floors, cooking meals, washing the car, mowing the grass, changing the diaper, or anything like that. With children, when they're young, everything is an act of service because they can't do anything for themselves. But as a child gets older, it's teaching the child how to do things for themselves. That's an even greater act of service. The third language is gift giving. It's universal to give gifts as an expression of love. The gift says they were thinking about me and look what they got from me. Number four is quality time: giving the other person your undivided attention. That doesn't mean sitting on the couch watching television. I'm talking about looking at each other and talking to each other. For a child, you have to go where they are to speak their language of quality time. If they're crawling on the floor, you go on the floor and crawl. You give them undivided attention. Number five is physical touch. We pick up babies, we kiss them, hold them, cuddle them long before the baby understands the meaning of it. But babies feel the love of physical touch. So those are the five basic languages. Each of us has a primary language that speaks more deeply to us than the other four.
Well, let me tell you my story with your book because it's been a joke in our family since Zac and I got married. My husband quickly realized he had the love language of acts of service, and he says I need all the other four. But he knows I don't have acts of service because when he does something for me, I just expect it and say thank you. Like thanks for washing my car, but isn't that what husbands do? But he's trying to show me how much he loves and cares for me. We've gotten better at it over the years though. I want to go to the idea that there would be love languages for kids, because frankly I've read this book twice and am very familiar with it, but I could not totally tell you what my kids' love languages are. I was kind of nervous before I got on, so I thought about it and could take a guess, but I'm sure a lot of other parents or youth leaders listening might feel the same way. How do you think it's different when a kid is 10 years old or five years old and they can't really tell you what they need?
You can actually discover a child's love language by the time they're four years old by observing their behavior. How do they respond to you and other people? For example, my son's love language is physical touch. When he was that age, I would come home from work, he would run to the door, grab my leg and climb up on me. He's touching me because he wants to be touched. Our daughter never did that. At that age, she would want me to come into her room so she could show me something. She wanted quality time. She eats up my undivided attention. So you can discover a child's love language pretty early just by observing their behavior. Because it's not only how they respond to you, it's how they respond to other people. A physical touch child will be hugging people. If they got siblings, they'd be hugging their siblings. Now here's a couple of other ways to discover a child's language as they get older. For example, for a six year old, ask yourself what do they complain and fight about?
That's where my brain is going with my kids. As you're talking, I'm like, I know one might be acts of service because she always gets disappointed if I didn't do something she asked me to do. Like it almost crushes her. It might not feel like a big deal to me, but she feels really let down. My other kids wouldn't have even noticed.
A mother shared this story with me. A six year old say, "we don't ever go to the park anymore since the baby came." He's complaining about not getting quality time. Before the baby came, he and his mother went to the park together and he had her undivided attention. Now he's not getting it, so he's complaining about it. If a 13 year old says, "I can't ever please you" they're telling you that words of affirmation is their language. So what do they complain about most often and then what do they request most often? For example, our daughter whose love language is quality time, when she was a teenager, she would ask me if we could take a walk after dinner. She was asking for quality time. I would say, "sure honey, as soon as I wash dishes for your mother." Because my wife's language was acts of service! I gotta make your mama happy and then I can walk with you. Now my son, on the other hand, would never do that. He would ask if we could play basketball after dinner. The way we played basketball in the backyard was physical, because he's physical touch. So put those three things together: how they respond to you, what do they complain about, and what are their requests of you? There's also a quiz you can take that we've had for years, and there's one specifically for kids.
Okay, well you're helping me. I feel like I've identified two to three of my kids. Now I need to work on the one that's oldest because I think he's like me. I think he likes all of them.
Let me say this. Let's not give people the wrong impression. Please don't hear me saying that you only speak the child's primary love language. You give heavy doses of the primary, but you sprinkle in the other four. Because we would like the child to know how to receive love and give love in all five languages. I mean that's the healthiest adult. Most of us, however, did not receive all five growing up. So we came to adulthood and now we have to learn how to speak some of these. But the ideal is heavy doses of the primary language and sprinkling the other four and a child is going to feel genuinely loved.
Well, and that's good because I think one thing I want to say right here is some of the things that drew me to a relationship with God were things that my parents weren't necessarily good at. It caused me to desire a deep relationship with God. My parents were great, and looking back, my parents actually were phenomenal parents and showed us love in so many different ways. But I think one of my core ways was words of affirmation. So when I didn't get tons of that, because that's just not the nature of the way my parents are made, I came to God for that. I'm sitting here wondering if I've failed my kids, but I want to encourage all you parents, that even in our failures he will make up for our weaknesses. He can move into those places. So don't be discouraged by this. It's useful! To be able to identify the way a kid, especially when you have limited resources and time, will feel truly loved. Because we can't meet all their needs.
You mentioned teaching, and we now have a curriculum for public schools for grades 1-6. It's called "Discovering the Five Love Languages at School." If a teacher uses that and they take one hour a week for five or six weeks, they will know the primary love language of every child in that room. Children learn more from the teacher from whom they feel loved. So we're very excited. It was written by and put together by a school counselor who used it in his own school for three or four years before we actually published the curriculum. It can really revolutionize the emotional climate of the classroom.
I can tell you the best teachers my kids have had, they've done exactly what you're saying. They have spoken my kids' languages. With Cooper, he just rises and lights up towards words of affirmation. He will become whatever you speak over him. You can notice the difference right before your eyes almost. Those teachers that have believed in him and spoken over him have changed him so much more than the teacher who was always disappointed in him. I want to talk about emotional readiness, because this is ultimately what we're after. We're after building healthy, thriving relationships and healthy, thriving kids. So what does it look like to launch kids that are emotionally noticing their needs and able to articulate their needs?
I think the love languages help with the most important emotional need a child has, which is the need to feel loved. If a child feels secure in the love of the parents, typically the child develops healthy emotions. Now that's not the only thing. Of course the child needs safety and security, a sense of self worth, and lots of other things. But really the deepest emotional need a child has is the need to feel loved. If that child grows up with what I call a "full love tank," then they feel really loved. Those kids will come into adulthood as emotionally healthy people. But if the love tank is empty through the years and they really don't feel loved by the parents, they grow up with a lot of internal emotional struggles and the teenage years, they will often go looking for love typically in all the wrong places. If we have any parents who are divorced who are listening to this, it is so important that both parents understand the love language of that child. Because already with the divorce, the child is feeling like you don't love me, you left me, etc. and we don't want that. I know parents don't want that, but that's what the child is feeling. So if you can cooperate together, you can still raise a healthy child.
And whatever your situation, I just want to keep reemphasizing, we fail. We let our kids down. I have rarely met a parent, although I know they exist, that doesn't want to meet the needs of their kid. Why I love your book so much and why I'm so glad you're here is because you're saying, "let me help you do that in the most direct, helpful way possible." So let's talk about why it's important to look beyond a kid's behavior and to really start to identify what their deeper need is. Because I know sometimes their behavior is saying one thing and it is actually pushing them away from us. But through that behavior, they're trying to communicate that they need something. How can we as parents not get too frustrated with the behavior and start to notice what that behavior is saying?
There are always emotions and thoughts going on inside. If we can get beyond the behavior and look at what they are feeling and what they are thinking, then we can address the issue rather than just addressing the behavior. For example, if a child is just throwing a temper tantrum, they're trying to get something from you. If you give into that and give them what they want, you've told them all they have to do is pitch a fit and they can get what they want. That's a poor way to do adulthood. So sometimes you have to recognize that the child is trying to manipulate you and trying to get something that they want. Other times their behavior indicates that they have been hurt. You know, maybe they're crying uncontrollably because they've been hurt by something you said. Here's where it's important for parents to apologize to children when you know that you've hurt them or you've let them down. Children need to learn how to apologize. You modeling it is the best way for them to learn. I have another book on understanding anger, and I tell this story about when my son was 13 or 14 years old. We got into an argument one night and I was saying hateful things to him and he was saying hateful things to me. We were getting louder and louder and he eventually just walked out of the room. When he did, I woke up and I just said, "Oh God, what have I done?" I just poured my heart out to God and asked God to forgive me for what I've done. When he came back I said, "Derek, could you come in here a minute bud?" He came in and I said, "I've got to apologize to you man. I lost my temper and I said horrible things to you and I don't feel that way about you. I love you very much. And a father should never talk to his son the way I talked to you. And I hope you will forgive me." He said, "Dad, that was not your fault. I started that. I should not talk to you that way. When I was walking up the street, I asked God to forgive me and I want you to forgive me." We hugged each other and cried together and after we cried I said, "Derek, why don't we both learn how to handle anger? The next time you feel angry with me, you just say, dad, I'm angry. Can we talk? And I'll listen to you. And the next time I feel angry with you, I'll say, Derek, I'm angry. Can we talk?" That turned the tide for us because we started listening to each other and talking our way through the anger rather than letting our anger get out of control. Let's face it, there's a whole bunch of parents who've never learned how to handle anger. So the children grow up in a home where their parents will lose their temper, yell, and scream at them. Folks, we don't have to do that forever. We have to learn to apologize. Apologizing is the first step in removing the barrier between you and that child and also often the first step in teaching the child how to apologize.
To free up those parents that realize they have done things right I would say, some of the most meaningful moments in parenting I've had have been in those apologies. It provided such intimate, awesome conversations because my kids weren't waiting for me to be perfect. My kids, in fact, were comforted when I wasn't. I think this is the story that we're afraid of as parents, but it's also the story that's real. It's just a way it is. We are going to mess up.
You don't have to be perfect to be good parents. But we do have to deal with our failures and apologize. When we deal with them, children will almost always forgive us.
I've got a college son now, so I'm tasting what it feels like to release them and still make mistakes and have to have those conversations. Before we go, Dr. Chapman, I want to talk about five simple ways that we can better connect with our kids today. Because I promise you, parents are motivated right now. A lot of parents are really tired in this season right now with homeschooling and summer and the climate of our world. What would you say to those parents that are tired and wanting just a few quick ways that they could really love and help their kids in the next few weeks?
Let me give you one that relates to college students. If you have college students at home, and you realize that the relationship is rather fractured and maybe you did fail along the way, this will be a wonderful time for you to address it. Just to say to them, "I've been thinking honey about your growing up, and I realize that I wasn't a perfect mom or a perfect dad. I just want to apologize to you for some things that come to my mind. Then I want to ask you if there are other things that come to your mind where you feel like I failed you. Because I really love you, and I just want you to know that I regret some of those things." That kind of conversation with that college kid while they're at home could start a whole new relationship with you. With other children that might be younger, certainly learning their love language and speaking their love language would be right up the top. That child really does need to feel loved. Then, depending on how many kids you have and if both parents are home, this is a great time to do some things you really didn't have time to do beforehand. You have to help them with their school work and all that, but there is still extra time there that we didn't have before. So think about some adventurous things you could do together. Go out in the backyard and set up a tent. Just think of what you could do that would be adventurous. Take a ride in the country if you live in the city. Count all the cows you pass by! Play some games with your children. Here might be the most important thing from the spiritual dimension. While we're all together, why don't we have a little time every single day in which we're going to either read a portion of the Bible or we're going to read a Bible story depending on the age of the children. We're going to talk about that passage or that story and what we can learn from it. Then we're going to pray together. Our daughter says that's where she learned to pray and they look back and remember that. Our kids have looked back at that devotional time, whether it's before bed, after breakfast, whenever it is, and said that was a highlight for them. So I think if you haven't already established something like that this will be a wonderful time in which to do that.
Thank you Dr. Chapman. This has been so helpful. I'm grateful for your ministry and your words. It's shaped my husband and I. We have learned to speak each other's languages and have a great marriage because of it. So thank you for your investment to us as parents, and now I'm going to go apologize to some kids.