Anyone with more than one child has heard, “You don’t love me as much as my sister,” or something very much like it. And I’m guessing that most of us have responded with shock and answered, “Of course not, kiddo, I love all of you exactly the same.” I even went so far as to tell my then-youngest, who insisted that there wasn’t enough love to go around, a metaphorical story about a candle. “The flame is my love for your sister,” I explained–very proud of myself for was was going to be the definitive brilliant response.
We all know how important it is to tell our kids we love them (or do we?). But how often do we actually show them? In a very cool study that was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that the children of nurturing, caring parents have larger hippocampi (hippocampus is the singular, but we all have two—one on each side of the brain) than kids whose parents are less nurturing and caring.
Dear Mr. Dad: Outside of the home, I’m a fairly calm, patient, level-headed person. At home, I’m impatient, angry, and yell a lot at my kids. I’m actively involved in their activities, but rarely find anything that they do very interesting. And efforts that I make to expose them to things I enjoy (tennis, baseball) always seem to backfire to the point that I regret making the effort. My problem is that I love my kids, but don’t necessarily like them. I know they’ll only be young for a short time and I should try to enjoy them while I can. But, honestly, I think I enjoy them less than five percent of the time. So my question is this: What can I do to enjoy my family more?
A: Wow. That can’t have been an easy email to write. But you very eloquently captured a feeling just about every parent has had (or will have). Very few people have the courage to admit it, though, so thanks for that. You didn’t say how old your children are, but there are several factors that may be contributing to your I-love-you-but-don’t-like-you feeling.
First, there’s their behavior. Dealing with rude, surly, uncooperative, disrespectful children on a regular basis can definitely make you question whether you should have had children in the first place.
Second, as children get older, they naturally push for more independence. If you aren’t able to gradually let go, you may feel useless, unloved, and angry that you’re being pushed away. This is especially true if you’re dealing with pre-teens and teens, who seem to feel that the best way to assert their independence is to inflict emotional damage on their parents.
Third, the expectations you have for your children—for example, their ability to play tennis and baseball—may be out of whack with what they’re actually physically or mentally able to do.
What to do?
- Think hard. There’s a big difference between not liking your children and not liking their behavior. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two, but it’s important to try.
- Read up on temperament. Some kids are naturally easier to get along with than others. In addition, certain parent-child personality combinations are more explosive than others. Understanding your child’s—and your—temperament can really help.
- Read up on child development. Understanding what’s normal and what’s not for children your kids’ age, should increase your patience and enjoyment levels.
- To be blunt, grow up a little. If you feel that you’ve made major sacrifices for your children (giving up hobbies or interests, spending ungodly amounts of money on private schools, etc), you may resent them. Yelling and seeing them as disappointing or irritating could be your way of getting back at them. But this is your life. Start learning to accept the things you can’t change, and focus instead on changing the things you can (your attitude, for example, or the need to transition from “daddy who knows everything” to “daddy the mentor who gives advice when it’s asked for”). There’s a good chance that your kids will eventually grow out of their behavior issues, and grow into being able to perform the way you think they should. But if you stay on the track you’re on, you’ll have destroyed any hope for a good relationship with them long before that happens. That said, the fact that you care enough about them and being a good dad to write, makes me think you’ll never let things get that far.
Dear Mr. Dad: I’m in my twenties, and my dad, who has a very scientific mind, doesn’t communicate his feelings. I know he loves me because he has been good to me. But I long to hear him say, “I love you” and am hurt that he never has. Why is this so hard for him?
A: Every once in a while I get an email that brings a tear to my eye—and this is one of them. It’s so sad that in your 20+ years your father has never said, “I love you.” I’m glad, though, that he has found other ways to express his love. The big question is why he finds it so difficult to utter those three magic words? There are a number of possibilities. Let’s take a look at a few.