We all aspire to give and receive love: warmth, caring, closeness, sharing. The modern ideal of love is full of golden light and warm feelings.
But Heavenly Father is not content with superficial emotion. He wants something more substantial, so He gives us families where we are challenged to move beyond gauzy sentiment to real love—love that is lived not only on days when family life is endearing and rewarding, but also on days when it is frustrating and difficult.
Families share limited resources, from apple pie to bathroom time to clothing budget. Because of their many years together, family members are often pre-sensitized to faults and behavior patterns in each other. (“Why can’t you remember your homework?” Why can’t you ever put away your dirty socks?”) And family members often have a front row seat to witness one another’s greatest weaknesses and deepest humiliations. What better testing ground could there be for love than family life?
More than Feelings and Words
In families, we learn that love is something more than a feeling. Parental love is a commitment to always act in the best interests of the child—even when it is inconvenient. And we learn that love is much more than saying “I love you.” Words may not be convincing if our actions communicate something different. In families, we learn that our job as parents is to be the flesh and blood messengers of God’s love in the lives of our children.
How can we move beyond feelings and words to make love a tangible reality for our children? Well, here’s where nurture comes in. In fact, the best definition of nurture is behavior that helps the child feel supported and valued—even cherished.
What can we learn about nurture from Heavenly Father? As we study His dealings with His children, we see four key behaviors that can help us learn to nurture as He does.
Lesson One—Making Time
The first lesson about love that we can learn from Father may be to make time for our children. That might seem quite easy for an Eternal Being, but it is hard for mortals. In fact, it is a deliberate test of our commitment.
Parenting is wonderfully inconvenient. Children frequently require our attention when we have other plans or pressing tasks. Yet the path to eternal joy cuts directly through using our time to bless the little people in our lives. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these . . . ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
I remember when my son, Andy, caught me one evening just as I was dashing off to a church meeting. He told me that his leg had hurt all day. He thought something might be seriously wrong with it. Anxiety was written on his face. He wanted me to help him, and I wanted to be a good dad. But I felt trapped. I had to go to a meeting.
I was tempted to minimize his pain: “It’ll get better. It’s probably just growing pains. You’ll be okay.” I even thought about dismissing his concern: “Andy, don’t complain so much. We took you to the doctor when you had chest pains and it was nothing.” But I knew those approaches would not help. In desperation I suggested, “Andy, I am going to a meeting. It will not last long. May I pick you up after the meeting? We will go out for dessert and talk about it. Is that all right?” Andy readily agreed.
After the meeting, I dashed home, picked up Andy, and we went to a restaurant. We ate and played tic-tac-toe on the paper placemats. We talked. And his leg didn’t hurt anymore. I am not saying that the leg pain was invented. I am saying that many of life’s pains will pass without crisis when we feel loved, and our children feel loved when we make time for them.
Lesson Two—The Power of Listening
The second lesson of Father’s example of loving is that He listens. He does not prepare His retort as we talk. He does not argue about our logic or about the facts of the case. He just listens. And He patiently waits until we have gotten it all out. He gives us His full attention.
Listening is a great gift of love. And when we add gentle understanding, the gift is celestial.
I think of the boy who arrived home from school sullen and angry. When his mother asked him what was wrong he insisted that nothing was. Later his mother tried again. “You seem upset, son.” The son glowered, then exploded: “On the way home from school the bus driver yelled at me, blamed me for stuff I didn’t do, and he called me names.”
What would be your reaction if the boy were your son? Commonly parents have one of two reactions. They blame the bus driver, or they blame the child. In both responses the parents immediately focus on their own reaction to what the child has said. In both cases the parents process the situation and decide who is to blame. Neither response helps the child because neither causes the child to feel heard and understood.
The son has just expressed anger and pain over his humiliation. He needs healing compassion. “Ouch, Son. It must have hurt to be humiliated in front of your friends. You probably felt embarrassed and angry.” The willingness “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” is the way that we “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9) Father comforts. He invites us to do the same.
Some parents worry that such understanding may seem to endorse the son’s behavior. “What if he really was a troublemaker on the bus? He needs to be accountable for his behavior.”
Accountability is a true principle, but so is compassion. There is a way to reconcile the two. First we listen, understand, and mourn with him. This sends a clear message: “I care about your feelings. I want to understand. You are important to me.” After that message has been understood, after the boy feels peaceful again, then a sensitive parent may say, “Son, that was a very hard experience. Can you think of anything you can do to be sure it doesn’t happen again?” Maybe he needs to sit with different friends on the bus. Maybe he needs to avoid certain behaviors that annoy the driver. Maybe he needs to talk to the driver about bus-riding expectations. The boy probably can think of some very wise and sensible ideas to prevent further trouble. But before he can move on to thinking about and buying into solutions, healing needs to take place. And the wise parent heals with listening and understanding.
Lesson Three—Customized Messages
The third way that Father shows us love is by customizing messages to our unique natures. He speaks to each of us in our own language.
Scott is looking for peace and insight. Father gives him peace and insight.
Nancy is looking for opportunities to serve. Father gives her beloved friends who need her.Wally is looking for joy. Joy is what he consistently finds.”Every man heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6).Nephi observed that God “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3).
In this world, most people exchange messages of love by some combination of three methods: telling, showing, and touching. Telling: For some people it is critically important to hear the words: “I love you.” Showing: Some people feel loved most strongly when someone does something for them—serving them or investing in the relationship with them. Touching: There are people who love to cuddle, hold hands, and be close.
How can we design messages for each of our children that will be more effective in conveying our love? We can ask them what things help them feel loved. We can also notice those things that seem to be most effective. For each child the language is different.
We can also use the principle of customizing messages as we practice lesson one and make more time for those we love. Andy valued mountain biking together. It was important to Emily that I show interest in her craft projects. Sara cherished peaceful walks together. Each child requires us to make time to be with him or her in a way they enjoy. To nurture more effectively, we should follow Father’s example and tailor our messages of love for each of our children.
Lesson Four—Make Allowance for Growth and Learning
Fourth, because of Father’s love, He sees beyond our mistakes. When Moses refused to believe that Father could fill his mouth, Father did not berate or give up on Moses. He gave him Aaron. Even after Peter had been so shamefully irresolute, Father drew him up to lead the ancient church.
If we are to be effective as parents, we must make allowances for our children’s growth and learning. They need us to see beyond their unskilled efforts to their earnest hearts.
Some parents worry about spoiling their children with too much support, encouragement, and love. But love is different from indulgence, and I suspect that no one was ever spoiled by too much love. We can teach, guide and hold children accountable while still reassuring them that they are deeply loved and valued.
There are times when being loving is especially hard. Nancy and I learned a powerful lesson about love with one of our teenage foster children. She argued with us regularly and lied to us often. We repeatedly felt irritated with her, which made it very hard to react to her helpfully. But we learned that even when we were irritated, we could ask ourselves, “What would we do IF we really loved her?” We learned to act on a gracious concern even when we did not feel loving. It helped us make kinder, wiser decisions in our relationships with her in spite of her challenging behavior.
The next time your child makes mistakes or behaves in a challenging manner, you can consider, “How would I react if I really loved this child in this moment?” Seeing beyond that moment to your child’s earnest heart will help you teach and correct in a way that causes your child to feel safe in your love.
A Higher Kind of Love
Taking time, listening, customizing messages and seeing beyond mistakes are vital ways that we nurture our children. But ultimately there is a higher kind of love. It is called charity. The pure love of Christ. It is a gift, a divine gift.
“Love one another as I have loved you” is His command (John 13:34, emphasis added). We are to love literally as He does, but maybe charity is not possible for mere mortals unaided by Heaven. It is, after all, divine love. And only when we are filled with Him do we love as He does.
Family is a great testing ground. We may learn the fundamentals of love and nurture in our families, but when we feel stretched beyond our puny capacities, we must call out for heavenly help. Among other things, family life can teach us our desperate, constant need for His example, teachings, and sustaining power.
If you are interested in additional ideas for effective parenting, you are invited to sign up for a new, free resource, we have created at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Navigating Life’s Journey is a weekly e-mail series that offers helpful ideas on parenting based on research so you can trust they will work in real life. There are also two other series available on couples relationships and personal well-being. To sign up for any or all of these resources, go to www.arfamilies.org
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Deanna Smith for their insightful contributions to this article.