There’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot as a foster parent – “I don’t love you!”
It’s said a million ways on a million days for a million reasons and always, always repeated.
“I don’t love you!”
Sometimes it’s cried desperately through tears and sadness.
“I don’t love you!”
Sometimes screamed, yelled, and said with fists clenched. Or, muttered under breath with an evil sideways glance.
“I don’t love you!”
It comes from our children. It’s directed at us, their siblings – life. But, in our home, there’s only ever one response you’ll hear from us as parents. It’s one we’re intentional about –one that addresses life when it hangs in the balance.
“But I love you.”
It goes like this:
I’m cleaning up the dinner dishes while the kiddos watch a show before bed. Putting the last dish in the dishwasher, I start it and join the kids for the rest of their movie. “When this is over its time for bed.” I announce.
“I don’t want to!” comes the quick reply.
“I know you don’t want to, but when this is over its time for bed.”
“It’s not fair! I don’t love you anymore!”
And, there it is. Whether it’s an excuse, a distraction, or a half-truth doesn’t matter. I meet it the same way, each and every time.
I breathe deeply, releasing the negativity beginning to dig into the back of my brain. Then, gathering all the love and genuine affection I have for this youngster, I turn my eyes from the movie to him. With deep and genuine affection, I hold his gaze before saying, “but I love you.”
And that is where the conversation ENDS. It has to. There cannot be any more discussion, any more excuses or whining or back and forth because the message I want to send, the one I want to sink in deep, is love. But how do I make that happen? How do I actually end the conversation? If said child is in hugging range, a deep pressure hug usually relaxes her and keeps the “no you don’t!” from surfacing. But, if not, I might gently squeezing her hand and leave the room so she can’t continue to argue. I do whatever I need to do to exit the “I don’t love you” conversation graciously so she is only left with my genuine affection. I’ll come back when the movie is over and scoot everyone off to bed then.
It sounds disgustingly sweet, I know. Like some kind of syrup that will suffocate you. And many days, it sounds impossible. Even just writing it makes me want to feign gagging sounds. Because, I’m nowhere near a saint and somehow this tiny piece of what I do right makes me look perfect. I’m not. Days are hard, and I fail in so many ways. There are many, many situations I handle with frustration, impatience, or downright anger – situations I’m not proud of – angry looks and harsh words I wish I could take back. But this one – the “I don’t love you” scenario – this one triggers compassion. There’s something about it that, no matter how exhausted or frustrated I am, usually short-circuits my thoughts to whisper “Find your compassion, find the love you have for this child, because, THIS, RIGHT NOW, is the essence of what you do.”
What if “I don’t love you” is just an excuse?
Oh, it can be! So many times the “I don’t love you” is thrown around to escape a situation the child doesn’t like. I know that, but whether it’s an excuse, a distraction, or a half-truth, I always treat it with genuine affection and a “but I love you” response. Here’s why.
- If it is a distraction and I say something like, “You’re just saying that because you don’t want to go to bed.” All I’ve done is given into their distraction. I’ve headed into another conversation about another issue – mainly whether or not they are telling the truth. Instead, the focus needs to be on the fact that I do, indeed, love them and it’s time to go to bed.
- What if I address it as a distraction and happen to be wrong in that instant? What if, in that moment, they really feel as if they don’t love me? If I dismiss it, I lose their trust and I shut down any real conversation about other emotions they might want to discuss in the future.
- Their half-hearted, “I don’t love you” gives me an opportunity to show them our family’s core values. My love for them as their parent isn’t dependent on their love for me. The opportunity to express THIS is far more valuable to me than any other type of conversation that could come from their distraction. It’s the heart of why we are foster parents and it’s the heart of the gospel. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10)
- It fosters security. Knowing that I love them even if they don’t love me gives them security in our relationship. Security is the foundation to a good relationship. See more about this in my popular series on attachment.
So, does it “work”?
Are they getting it? Do they realize that they might not love me but I will still love them? Honestly?
I didn’t know.
I knew it reflected who we were as parents. I knew my intentions with it, and what I wanted it to accomplish in them, but I had no idea if it was actually doing any of those things.
Here is a conversation I watched play out between two of my children.
Background: Justin was trying to get Cameron to do things his way. Cameron wasn’t interested in Justin’s way and clearly communicated that. Justin wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. He needed ammo – something to convince his brother to do things his way.
Justin: “I don’t love you!”
Cameron (looks up at Justin with deep kindness): “I still love you”
Justin: “But I don’t! I don’t love you!”
Cameron (stops what he is doing and gently says): “but I still love you”
That was it! End of conversation.
Justin knew that Cameron wasn’t going to give into his demands and so he went back to his previous way of doing things. There was no more fighting, throwing or worse. No long battles or angry words, just love.
Wow. I sat in awe. Cameron got it! He actually got it! There was no sarcasm in his “I love you”, no hint of playing a part. He was genuinely kind and caring toward his brother. True love – in the midst of difficulty – when someone was unkind and unloving to him he chose to love.
And Justin, although he was the offender, knew Cameron meant it. It was enough. He didn’t keep pushing or demanding his way. He took “I love you” as an answer and went back to his previous way of doing things.
So, does it work? Yes, yes it does. At least here, at least now, on this tiny little spot in the world we call our home, it works. So Mama, keep loving. Keep living this life before them. And know, that they do indeed see. Whether they choose to accept it or reject it is up to them, but while they are in your home, they will have experienced it. And that will make a difference.
Free Attachment Resource
Fostering a secure relationship with your kiddos is oh, so important! Here are 4 elements of a secure attachment and activities to establish it with your children. Put your email address here and “click” so I can send it to you.
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