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Can you say “I Love You” Too Often?

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An interview with Dr. Christine Carter

In the past few weeks my 2.5 year old has regularly blurted out he loves me. I’ll never get sick of hearing it. Every single time, my heart swells. But, is the reverse true? Is it possible to say “I love you” too often to our children? Will they stop hearing it, therefore rendering those three words meaningless? How necessary is saying the phrase, if our actions are consistent and loving? Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s The Greater Good Science Center, has a few words to say about the verbal expression of love. – Laurel Moglen, Web Content Producer

How important is it to say, “I love you” to our kids?

I think it’s really important. Obviously, love and affection are the most important things for our children. There’s plenty of research out there saying that those two things affect their outcomes, emotional well-being, and academic achievement. The words are important – the expression of our emotions amplify our loving actions.

What if a parent expresses their love solely through loving actions? Is that enough for a child to know s/he is loved?

It’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s research out there to test that. I would venture to guess that loving actions plus words will amount to more than just loving actions. This models for kids what a healthy relationship is.

What if parents aren’t comfortable saying “I love you?”

The expression of love is a skill that doesn’t come as easily to some people as others. For some, it might be a genetic pre-disposition to not be emotive, or perhaps someone’s upbringing didn’t encourage it. It’s a skill to learn and practice – that’s how we get better at it. We figure out when the expression is best received, the most appropriate way to express our love. With practice and time, the expression of love becomes easier.

Can you say I love you too often?

Probably. It could become a tick – a phrase that carries no meaning. Especially if we don’t always say it to express the pure feeling, or if we use it to manipulate, you know, “Mama loves you – now go clean up your room” kind of thing. It’s not just the frequency that can be off, but it’s the context that matters too. If you don’t mean it unconditionally when you say it, then we run into trouble.

Are there times when we should definitely not say, “I love you?”

  • If you’re implying I love you now, but not in other situations. A lot of people didn’t get unconditional love. Those people might find it hard, therefore, to give it. But it is the healthiest way to raise a child into a healthy adulthood.
  • Never say it if it’s tied to a performance, or something a child has done – it shouldn’t be connected to praise. For example, “You did so great on this spelling test! I love you so much.” That’s a no-no. I’m proud of you is different than I love you.
  • If you’re trying to manipulate your children – saying those words is no good. Never say I love you to get them to do or feel something.
  • Don’t say it if it’s not authentic.

The only time to say I love you is when you mean I love you – an expression of unconditional love. It can function to reassure, or soothe, or nurture your children. The trick for parents is to know what they’re really trying to say and what they feel.

The other day my elder son kicked my younger son. After making it clear his behavior was not okay, I told him I loved him, even when he hurts his brother, but that hurting his brother is still never okay. Did I send a confusing message?

No, in fact it was a strong move to clearly express your unconditional love. You separated your love for your son, from the way he treated his brother – making them two separate issues. A less skilled approach is giving the older child, in this example, the cold shoulder, or merely scolding him. By telling him you loved him no matter what, he received a deep learning, from a secure base. In this way, your child is more likely to learn from his mistakes for future behavior. Continuing to love your children through misbehavior and expressing that love is not condoning the behavior, it’s providing them with the support they need to deal with and learn from their mistakes.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. She also teaches an online class Raising Happiness that helps parents teach their children happiness habits, including the practices, beliefs and behaviors that help bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children. Dr. Carter writes an award-winning blog for Greater Good (www.greatergoodparents.org), which is syndicated on the Huffington Post and PsychologyToday.com.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show,” along with our beautiful children’s books, music, handmade dolls, and more. We want to be a truly helpful parenting tool… For you!

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