Many men don’t feel up to the task of expressing love, or at least that’s what they’ve been told. Yet in their hearts they know that they are concerned about their kids. They hope that their kids will “turn out” okay, that they will be safe,
that they will make good decisions, that they will do better in life. Sometimes it doesn’t come out in so many words, but the concern is still there.
It is amazing how much credit children will give you for very simple offerings. Most kids will bask in the knowledge that Dad cares. He doesn’t have to offer them the moon; doesn’t have to be perfect in every way; doesn’t (really) have to be the best Dad in the world to be the “best Dad in the world.” It means everything to them that “this is my father.” They know that fathers come in all different shapes and sizes; that they behave differently and have different standards sometimes (“at Brian’s house they don’t have to eat everything on their plate!”).
Yet a child is not out shopping for the best deal he or she can get on a father; there is no contest going on; not even a scoreboard. They know you are their father, and unless you’ve done something terribly hurtful to them, they want you to be their father. They will assume you care about them because you are their father.
Unless they are taught otherwise, kids will assume that their parents care. They take love in installments, one little piece at a time. To love your kids completely means to love them consistently—not that at any one moment you fulfill their entire range of love needs anymore than you can give a plant all the water it will ever need at once or feed a pet all the food it will need for a whole year. Love is doable.
The Many Levels of Love
If love were just a feeling of affection, then it would be hard to point to it, to talk about it, or imitate it. Love is not intangible or elusive; it is not airy or sappy. Love involves emotion, but is not limited to it. Every part of who you are gets involved in the action of love—the part that thinks (mind), the part that feels (emotion), the part that decides (will), the part that communes with God (spirit), the part that acts (body).
1. Kids have bodies.
Some fathers offer as proof of their love their efforts in providing for their families. Surely a sweat-soaked paycheck means something. Fair enough. It is a good thing if a father understands and lives up to his responsibility to provide for his family insofar as he is able. Food on the table, roof over head, clothes on back—they’re good things.
But if a father’s love stops there, if it never touches the inner life of a child, then that child will be left with a hole in his or her heart. Worse, that child may carry into adulthood an emptiness and longing that leaves him or her feeling bankrupt, and compels him or her to look for love in some very sick places.
Loving your kids completely doesn’t mean you’ve somehow managed to love them with perfection—only God has that kind of love. It means loving all of who he or she is, not feeling self-satisfied that you’ve put food on the table and shoes on their feet.
One more thing. Since our outer lives (bodies) are inseparable from our inner lives (soul, spirit, mind, heart, etc.), we have, in our bodies, a kind of doorway to the inner life. One November I noticed in my son’s grade school classroom lists of “what I am thankful for” posed by the children. Again and again words referring to physical touch appeared: hugs, kisses, laps, wrestling.
2. Kids have minds.
When you teach your kids things they did not previously know, you are loving them. They are naturally curious. While driving in the car or walking through a park a father can stimulate the mind-hunger of the family: “who can find something alive under a rock?… how many different kinds of clouds can you find?… why are waves bigger on some days than others?… who can spot the first wild animal?”
Kids are very curious about where their dads work, what he does, why he does it—and if you let them see such things, their minds grasp something more about the world around them.
They love to hear stories about when you were young—places you visited, problems you solved, people you met, lessons you learned (even the hard ones). They are constantly writing their own life stories, but all stories are made up of bits and pieces of other stories. They want to know where they came from, and at some level of maturity, they use that to make their own decisions as to where they are going.
Even in families where the kids have attained the age-of-all-knowledge, the time when they’ve decided that they know more than their parents, there are still some things that the father knows that they don’t—maybe not math or science lessons, but things from the world of politics or business or machines. A father can show love toward his thinking children just by raising questions that he may not even have the answer to. When a father shares what he is thinking about, or wondering about, or what he firmly believes, he is engaging a very important part of himself with a very important part of his kid.
3. Kids have hearts.
Loving your kids at the emotional level is not the same thing as being gushy. Mostly, it has to do with the child’s emotions. Showing love at an emotional level means acknowledging and understanding the feelings that a child has looking at the world, discovering it, and coping with it. When a kid is sad about losing a pet, he needs a dad who will let him be sad instead of trying to clamp down the lid. Or if the child is glad about making the team, to be glad with him. Love means being glad with your kid even when it’s about something that you yourself would not be glad about—when you’re thinking “so what’s the big deal about chess” or dinosaurs or a writing contest or a field trip to the zoo. Love means not meeting your kid’s anger with a bigger and louder anger, but with a desire to know why he or she is angry. Love offers confidence to fearful kids instead of embarrassment. And when they are embarrassed or ashamed, an opportunity to bring his or her chin up and look “Dad” in the face because his face welcomes him or her back.
4. Kids have wills.
What do you do with the will of a child? What do you do the first time they look you straight in the eye and say, with jaw set, “I won’t! And you can’t make me!”? It may be tempting to think that children would be much better behaved or more controllable if they didn’t have the strong wills they sometimes show, but take away a kid’s will and you’ve taken away a large part of what makes him or her human. Will is not something you give your kid for a birthday present when he or she turns ten or sixteen or twenty-one. Nor is will some kind of intangible organ that grows and grows and sooner or later it asserts itself and then the parent needs to “handle” it. Will is a gift of God. We are created with wills. They show up in our lower instincts like appetite and desire, and in higher places like aspirations and values. Will is the capacity to assert oneself, and thus it can serve good and wholesome ends or be the engine of self-destructive behavior.
Fathers love their children as willful, volitional creatures when they see themselves as shapers and trainers of the will. Will is not an infection to be treated, nor a rebellion to be repressed—it is like the rudder that steers a ship or the engine that drives the ship. The weak-willed kid is more susceptible to negative peer pressure, or even the influence of cults. Your long-term relationship with them will have a lot to do with what they will; and they will either willfully follow Christ or willfully shun him.
Thank God that your kids have wills—and when you can’t thank him, then at least give God the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was doing when he made all of us this way.
5. Kids have spirits.
You can’t really pull apart these different parts of the inner life of a human being: mind, emotion, will, spirit. They are not separate compartments inside a human being; but rather, different biblical words to describe the many levels at which we function as profoundly deep, spiritual creatures.
When the Bible says we are spirit it means that we, created in God’s image, have the capacity to create what did not exist before (like the Creator), to sense the rightness and wrongfulness of different actions (morality), to long for a relationship with the Eternal One (spirituality), and more.
The nurse wiped away the blood and mucous that covered the tiny body of my newborn daughter that cold day in January, and when she laid her on my wife’s chest, I purposely took a moment to tell myself, because it was almost too hard to believe—this is an eternal creature. Never mind the waterfall of emotions I was feeling (mostly relief!). Never mind the onslaught of questions: was she healthy? did she look more like mom or dad? how long was she and how much did she weigh—all the common questions, but none of them in any way comparable with this truth: here was a new human being, conceived because God willed it so, made in his image, capable of reflecting his glory, equipped to follow his will, crippled by sin already, but near to the saving covenant of God. My baby—a spiritual creature!
She was born at Elmbrook Hospital, nine months after she was conceived, but she must be born of God too. Of this the Bible says that those who receive Christ in faith are “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13). Where a husband’s will leaves off, the love of God takes over.
If fathers needed to discover or generate the total supply of love needed by their kids, they would have failed before they began. But if we as a fathers can simply look at our kids the way God looks at them–noble and flawed, capable and needy, equipped but empty—then we will have begun to really love them.