Never Say “I Love You” to a Child

A while ago I was babysitting for friends.  They went to a movie and I watched their son.  When they returned home the wife/mother joined me on the couch.  I asked her if she enjoyed the movie.  “I loved it!  I just love that director and the star.”

At that point her son came down the stairs.  He had heard their car in the driveway and had woken up.  He was half asleep but wanted a hug and kiss from his mother who immediately obliged and sent him upstairs with the words, “I love you!”

As I was driving home I thought about just how meaningless the word “love” is.  Here was a woman who was a good person, a good mother, well-educated and caring, who used the same term to describe her feelings for an inanimate object (a movie), two strangers (the director and his star performer), and her offspring.  If he had been awake and old enough to understand, I wondered how that would have made him feel.

A few months later I was invited to a Bat Mitzvah celebration.  The 12-year old focus of our attention was required to give a sermon, what in Hebrew is called a dvar torah, on the weekly reading from the Torah.  She spoke for a good half hour-45 minutes.  Her talk was fabulous.

Afterwards, everyone went over to congratulate her.  I was standing by her father and eventually she made it to us through what must have seemed to her like hordes of admirers.  He father said, and I quote:

“I love you so much.  And that’s the last time I am ever going to tell you that.  You’re a woman now.  By Jewish law you are an adult and I am going to stop treating you like a child.  No more ‘I love you’s.’”

At that moment she looked like she was going to burst into tears.  And the people listening were not too happy either.  Then he continued,

“From now on it’s going to be ‘I’m proud of you’ and ‘I respect you.’  ‘Pride’ and ‘respect’ are things that you earn, ‘love’ is a term of literature that people use to describe anything they like.  It’s meaningless.”

His daughter beamed.  Then her grandmother came over, not having heard the conversation, gave her a big hug and said, “I love you so much!”  She replied, “Bubbie, I love you too, but are you proud of me and do you respect me?  Daddy does!”  And then Daddy beamed!

Recently I had a phone conversation with a potential candidate.   I asked her about her colleagues.  She told me, “Oh, I love them!  They’re just marvelous.”  I then asked her to explain why, and she said that they were “very helpful and encouraging.”  Great answers.  But I remembered my friends and continued the conversation asking her to describe the type of people she would like to work with.  “Helpful and “encouraging” was the best she could come up with.  She never said the words “pride,” “proud,” “respect,” or “respectful.”

I then decided to play my hand, so to speak.  I asked her if she was proud of her colleagues and respected them.  She honestly admitted that she had never thought about them in those terms.  Finally I asked her, “How would your colleagues describe you?”  She responded, “I can answer that.  Some are my references.  They always say that I am ‘very helpful and encouraging, a real team player.’”

This candidate has been unemployed for some time.  I’m beginning to think that maybe having references who will say that they were “proud” to have worked with you, and had a lot of “respect” for you, would be better than just saying that you were a “team player.”

Think about that the next time you use the same term to describe your feelings toward your children that you use to describe inanimate objects, activities, food, colleagues, friends, pets, relatives and strangers.  Who knows, maybe when they eventually join the workforce they’ll aspire to be a source of pride and respected, and not just liked or even loved by their coworkers!