I was recently giving my 12-year-old son a lecture because he’d gotten in trouble in his garden class. Apparently he and another boy wandered off from the school garden, out of sight, and started smacking random trees with one of the school rakes, attempting to break it. The principal caught them. Only it gets worse, my wife — his mother — was also teaching the class.
Naturally, on a list of stupid stunts pulled in junior high, I’m pretty sure this ranks somewhere near the bottom in terms of severity. However, it was pretty embarrassing for my wife to have her own son brought to her by the principal. And I told him as much. I also told him that I’m surprised his mother didn’t break her foot off in his butt, right there in front of his classmates. He looked at the ground, sheepishly, and once I was done giving him a punishment, I said, “You know what you did was out of line, but I do want you to know I still love you.”
This isn’t the first time one of my children has been in trouble, and we ended with an “I love you.” That phrase really is the refrain of our home. When I leave for work, I hug my kids and say, “I love you.” When I come home, it’s the same. When I put them to bed, I say it again. I’ve been a father for 12 years, and I cannot think of a day I haven’t told my children that I loved them. I don’t know if I say it too much. I don’t know if you can tell your children you love them too much. But what I can say is that I didn’t hear that phrase all that often from my parents.
I’m not sure exactly why that is, but I think it had something to do with my family being pretty unstable. My father was in and out of jail because of a drug addiction. My mother struggled as a single mother. But when I was 14, I moved in with my grandmother, and she said, “I love you” after everything. She must have told me she loved me three or for times a day, sometimes even more. When I was in trouble, the lecture always ended with an, “I love you.” It seemed like no matter what I did, how I performed, the good, the bad, and the ugly, my grandmother loved me.
In high school, I didn’t think much of it. And when she said it around my friends, I’ll admit, I got a little embarrassed. But looking back now, I know without a shadow of a doubt that my grandmother loved me no matter what. And I must say, in comparison to the uncertainty I have around my own parents’ love for me, it feels like this cool refreshing certainty that I cannot help but want to give to my own children.
So I say it a lot. I say it when I’m angry with my kids. I say it when I’m happy with them. I say it before I hang up the phone, and when I drop them off at school, and before they step out on the soccer turf, or gymnastics mat, or settle into bed.
I have this strong desire for my children to now that regardless of who they are, what they do, who they become, how they perform, or how they feel about me, that they know I love them. My love for them cannot fade, and it does not have to be earned. It is the foundation of our relationship. My love for them is their safety net. It is the parachute. It is their soft landing.
This doesn’t mean I don’t express dissatisfaction when they slack off in school. It doesn’t mean that I don’t speak firmly with them when they do something boneheaded, like my son did in garden class. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have high expectations for them as humans. It also doesn’t mean that I look the other way because I am blinded by my love for my children.
It simply means that my children are loved. They have a father who is there for them during the good and the bad. Sometimes it means tough love, and sometimes it means “kiss their scuffed knee” love. But ultimately, I want my children to know, regardless of how they turn out, that their father loves them.
So back to the story with my son. When I told him I loved him after scolding him for misbehaving in his own mother’s class, he didn’t roll his eyes. He didn’t argue with me, or stomp out of the room. He just looked up at me and said, “I love you too, Dad.”
And in so many ways it felt like he was saying, “I know you are doing this because you love me.” It took us a long time to get to this point, but I know for a fact that we wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t made sure that he knew I loved him.