You’ve probably heard about the love languages.
Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is one of the top 20 bestselling Christian books of all time, ranking among the top 5 bestselling books from 1995 to today. And one of the bestselling spin-offs is The Five Love Languages of Children.
In this book, Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell bring their love tank paradigm to parents. It works like this: each child has a love tank that needs to be filled. Kids crave love from their parents, and each kid receives love primarily in one of five love languages: physical touch, acts of service, quality time, gift-giving, and words of affirmation. Chapman and Ross show us how to recognize our child’s default language and communicate love effectively.
Approaching this book, I was skeptical—especially as it begins with story after story about how families were turned around. We all know it isn’t that simple. Miserable families will not read this book and—at the flip of a switch—be happy families. There’s a reason God didn’t give us a step-by-step formula to perfect parenting.
A SET OF TOOLS
However, I did find The Five Love Languages of Children helpful in providing a set of tools for showing affection.
When the Bible tells us to “do unto others” we sometimes oversimplify that by showing affection to someone in the way that we like to receive affection. But Chapman outlines differences in personality that teach us how we can love selflessly.
It’s helpful to have a framework. When a baby is crying inconsolably, I run through a checklist in my mind: Hungry? Diaper? Tired? In the same way, if one of my children is emotionally needy, Chapman’s book gives me a list of possibilities—new tools—to try.
GREEK TO ME
Though I was familiar with the concepts in this book, I had set the bar high for expressing love to my children. For instance, when I considered the gift-giving love language, I was tempted to throw up my hands. I’m not great at gifts. It’s like speaking a foreign language—intimidating at first.
Chapman and Ross simplify things and lower the bar. Each love language is expressed in different and subtle ways. Gift-giving can be as simple as forking over a quarter for a gumball.
As our children grow, we must adapt to different personalities and stages of life. If we’re too stubborn to adapt as our children’s needs change, we aren’t making room for them to mature, and we’re making everyone miserable.
And for mothers and fathers of special-needs kids, foster kids, adopted kids, abused kids, kids with single or split-custody families…it’s even more crucial.
These parents must be even more willing to love in ways that may not come naturally. And they may find it more difficult to get through to their children. Because of this, there is a chapter in the book aimed at helping single parents understand—and heal—the emotional wounds of their child in the difficulties of divorce, death, or other sorrows.
DISCIPLINE & TENDERNESS
Chapman also delivers a good warning about discipline and manipulation.
We shouldn’t use love languages to manipulate our children—say, by withholding them. The love languages are a way of expressing affection, just as discipline is a loving way of expressing disapproval. As Chapman puts it:
“Unconditional love is a full love that accepts and affirms a child for who he is, not for what he does. No matter what he does (or does not do), the parent still loves him.”
Our discipline and affection ought to come from the same place: love.
Yet if there’s one chapter I don’t recommend, it’s “Discipline and the Love Languages.” Although much of the material is good, the authors undercut it by using extreme examples of good and bad discipline. Their negative examples are pure abuse. On the other hand, they set the bar so high with their positive examples that it feels paralyzing.
At the end of the day, Chapman and Ross leave no room for imperfect discipline. That’s bad. If you want to read a good book on discipline in the context of love, we’ve got that covered.
WHY DO WE LOVE?
Like any book that focuses on felt needs, this book can push us toward idolatry, and press us (and our children) into the mold of victims. If they’re not behaving well, it’s because their love tank isn’t full, which means their bad behavior is my fault.
But just as I don’t need my husband’s love to give him respect as God commands, our children have a responsibility to God and us that isn’t contingent on how loved they feel. And that’s an important lesson for them to learn, too. Filling a child’s love tank is not the ultimate answer.
If I love my children, my goal is not to make idols of them. My hope isn’t for them to have full “love tanks.” It’s for them to know Jesus.
Just the same, recognizing the love languages of our children may be the right first step. This quote from Matt Chandler sums it up beautifully:
“Our job is not to save our children. Our job is to teach them about Jesus, putting as much kindling around their hearts as we possibly can so that the Holy Spirit can come in and ignite the fire.”
It isn’t enough for us to to speak the love languages of our children. We must teach them, pray for them, train them, set a godly example for them. This book will not single-handedly turn our lives around. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But formulas can be helpful. There’s nothing wrong with having more tools to love our children, not just in hopes that they will love us back, but for their eternal souls.
For more of my thoughts on love languages and kids, follow me at facebook.com/michalthegirl where I’ll be discussing each language in more depth.