Speaking in tongues: How to give love so it’s fully received

I saw a family in my office the other day: a teenage boy, his mother and his father. It was supposed to be the boy’s sports physical, but only his father was into sports. His mother wanted him to take computer classes. The boy just wanted to be left alone. They spent most of the appointment arguing, glaring at each other and feeling misunderstood.

I’ve known this family for a long time. I know for a fact that they love each other very deeply. But right now they’re going through a phase where none of them feels particularly loved. It reminded me that when love is in short supply the problem isn’t always low inventory. More often than not, it’s just poor distribution.  

Love can be expressed in a thousand different ways, but most of us only understand a few. Some of us recognize love in a gentle touch. Others feel it in acts of kindness and practical support.  Some want words of affection. Still others need time alone together, to share the same space and breathe the same air. But when two people speak different languages of love, they build their own Tower of Babel. Try as they might, each one’s message of love sounds like gibberish to the other’s ears.

As parents, we run into this problem as soon as our children arrive. Our partners, whom we probably chose because they were so different from our own families, often teach us a new language of love. We’re excited to explore their world, and to master its exotic dialect. Then kids arrive, bringing sleep deprivation, exhaustion and stress, and our addled brains can’t process anything but our mother tongues. Suddenly, we’re lonely travelers, short on cash, in a dicey neighborhood in a foreign land. Doesn’t anyone speak English in this freaking town?!?

With luck, you and your partner eventually remember each other’s language and get back on track. But then there’s a whole new problem to solve. Your kids speak their own languages of love, and they may be ones you’ve never heard.

I have one daughter who is more than happy to give me a hug, but has no interest in hanging out with me. My other daughter squirms away from a hug as if it’s a death trap, but follows me around the house wherever I go so she can sit near me and read. I love them both with all my heart, but I have to be careful how I tell them. If I get it wrong, the message won’t be received. 

We spend a lot of time and energy on our kids’ education. We track their progress through Geometry, Chemistry, Spanish and Driver’s Ed. We try to give them the knowledge they need to thrive in a competitive, unpredictable world. Why, then, do we pay so little attention to their education in the languages of love? No other lessons will have as profound an effect on their happiness and on the course of their lives.

If I had to design a core curriculum in the Linguistic Arts of Love, it would include the following classes.

LAL-101: Native Tongues. Students will discover and explore the particular forms of communication that enable them to feel deeply loved. They will discover how the roots of that dialect trace back to their families of origin and their cultural heritage. 

LAL-102: Love as a Second Language. Students will learn to teach others how to convey love in ways that they themselves can recognize and understand.

LAL-220: Babel Unraveled. Students will survey a wide spectrum of love idioms, and become fluent in each. By end of semester, they will be able to express their love in terms that are familiar and meaningful to all the loved ones in their lives.

LAL-320: Found in Translation. Students will learn to recognize, decode and receive messages of love in almost any form, from any person, no matter how obtuse or obscure.

Of course, we don’t really have schools for these sorts of things. Children don’t learn how to give and receive love from textbooks and lectures — they learn by example. Our example. It’s our job to teach them how to give love so it’s fully received, and how to receive love no matter how it’s given. 

A fun place to start is 5lovelanguages.com/profile. It’s a little quiz that you and your kids can take to find out more about your particular languages of love. Try it out, and talk about the things you discover. You might be surprised by how much you learn.

It seems impossible, but someday, somewhere, someone out there is going to love your kids just as much as you do. Won’t it be nice if they can feel it loud and clear?

Jeff Lee earns mostly passing grades in Seattle.