The other day, my daughter and I left her little sister at grandma’s house and drove to the dentist together. My nearly-five-year-old exclaimed from the backseat, “Mom! This is the best day! I love the dentist and I love spending quality time with you! We’re never in the car, just the two of us!”
I laughed, partly at the use of exclamation points and partly because my child incorporates words like “quality time” into our daily conversations.
A couple years ago, this same daughter and I were in the midst of the classic “threenager” drama. I remember sitting on our upstairs landing one day after yet another power struggle—in tears—wondering why on earth I had been chosen to be the mother of this strong, opinionated, passionate girl. I felt incompetent; like such a failure.
Suddenly, a book flashed through my mind. When we were first married, a friend lent us The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I knew he had written one about children and that evening I picked up a copy. As I read about how our children respond to love and discipline, I saw how I could improve our family culture.
After reading the descriptors, it was clear that my daughter is a classic “physical touch” kid. When she’s frustrated or upset, she stamps her feet and throws toys. When she feels unsafe or tired, she snuggles in and needs to be held. When she’s content and wants to talk about her day, she does it sitting in my lap. When she snuggles, every single part of her body has to touch my body.
This is not at all how I’m programed. My love language is “quality time,” in which I don’t need the close proximity that my daughter loves. With this insight, I set about to rewrite our interactions. I looked for small, natural ways to incorporate her need for physical touch before she became desperate.
Of course, nothing is magical and we still experience our share of misunderstandings and power struggles, but when I can start our day with a snuggle and a book rather than rushing around, it sets the tone for a better morning. When we can spend a little time before the craziness of dinner together on the couch, the witching hour seems to diminish. When we’re out and about, I give her hand a squeeze or make sure we get some physical contact at the playground.
These small moments and opportunities help. They remind me that we are all different. Even though physical touch can feel so draining to me, I have learned that a small gesture makes a huge different for my daughter’s wellbeing and sense of safety.
It’s funny that, at nearly five years into this mothering journey, I’m still remembering that I’m raising individuals. These girls are not “mini-me’s.” Each is their own unique person with their own way of relating to the world. My job isn’t to make them more like me; it’s to learn how to nurture their personalities and outlooks.
Our second daughter is nearly two-years-old and I’m starting to look for ways she thrives and feels loved. (Chapman advises that a dominant love language usually doesn’t appear until around the age of five.) Even though she’s still developing, she interacts so differently than her sister. When she wants snuggle time, it means laying on the couch next to her; when she reads, she doesn’t mind sitting near. She still loves lap-time, of course—what kid doesn’t?— but the way she asks and responds is completely different from her old sister.
I’m starting to look more closely at these differences, wondering how I can best meet her needs. It’s easy to want to lump the two girls together—what worked for our oldest must work for our second. As any seasoned parent will tell you, that’s both silly and impractical. Because they are different people, I look for ways to parent their needs differently.
As they grow older, I hope they recognize this unique aspect of our family’s dynamic. What works for one shouldn’t work for the other. The way in which my husband and I parent will be different. We’re starting to use this language and these expectations in hopes that our daughters won’t view it as unfair parenting, but as best-practices parenting.
Right now, they don’t seem to notice the differences, but I do. When I remember this small shift in thinking, our days look so much different and our interactions are much sweeter. We work as a coherent group rather than as frustrated individuals, and that is ultimately my hope for our family—that we always remember to function as a supportive team, celebrating our own unique needs and ways of interacting.
How do you parent your kids differently? What have you learned most from those interactions?
Annie Rim lives in Colorado where she plays with her two daughters, hikes with her husband, and reflects about life & faith on her blog. A world traveler, she has taught in the classroom, at an art museum, and now in the playroom. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.