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Why “I like you” is as important as “I love you” to your kids

Close up portrait of a smiling mother carrying cute little girl on shoulders (iStock)

She looked at me from across my counseling office, as exhausted and frustrated as any mom I have met, and said, “I’ll always love him BUT… I sure don’t like him very much at times!”

She was not the first mom or dad I’ve heard utter these words and I’m sure she won’t be the last. I get it. She was tired of being ignored by her 7-year-old son. She didn’t like her son’s backtalk. She didn’t like that, even during our counseling appointment, he was grabbing at her keys that she had insisted he stop pulling on. As a counselor I’ve heard much worse things spoken from the mouths of parents and kids alike, but there was something about that sentence that broke my heart. It wasn’t the words she said. It was the look on her son’s little face. The second his mom said, “I love him BUT… I sure don’t like him very much at times,” a light went out in his eyes, his shoulders drooped and his “oppositional behavior” reached new levels. Being un-liked felt a lot like being unloved.

The Power of “I Like You”

At the other end of the spectrum, this last week my 3-year-old daughter taught me the true power and importance of the three simple words, “I like you.” Almost every morning in the past week Emma has met me in the hallway after I had finished getting dressed for work and said, “Daddy?” Then she waits for my attention and says, “I like you!” to which I can’t help but scoop her up and answer with, “I like you too.”

Each time she says these words to me, I feel like I’m starting a new and promising relationship. When I first started dating the woman who is now my wife, I remember one special night as I dropped her off after a date. I wanted her to know I was interested and really enjoyed being with her, but wasn’t quite ready for the other “L” word yet. As I bid her farewell for the evening I said, “You know what? I like you!” She answered back with, “I like you too.” I walked home on cloud nine. With that silly, straightforward exchange there was no need to wonder where we stood, no need for complicated discussions about our feelings. We just understood.

My daughter’s pronouncement of, “I like you” reminded me of that. It gave me a thrill of joy and excitement that filled me for hours afterward. I also saw this same reaction in my sweet little girl when I said it to her. Our family exchanges “I love you” a lot. We throw it out almost every time we leave or greet each other. But there is something different about “I like you,” that even “I love you” doesn’t  achieve.

What I Learned

From these two experiences I’ve learned a couple things that have driven me to seek to genuinely like my kids and to express it whenever I can.

First of all, the phrase “I love them, but I don’t like them” is absurd. But the absurdity of it rarely crosses our mind when we’re in the middle of a clash of wills or managing our toddler’s tantrum. I genuinely felt for the mom that entered my office that day because I’ve been there too. I learned that “like” is a prerequisite for love, but it is not necessarily a prerequisite for our duty bound parental obligation to care for our child. That is exactly what our negated proclamation of love feels like though—an obligation. Nobody wants to feel like an obligation. To be picked because they had to pick you feels a lot like not being picked at all. Caring for our kids because we have to love them degrades the expression of love to nothing more than a declaration of genetics. It’s true there are times that our kids do things we don’t like. They may even drive us crazy from time to time, but when we focus on, look for, find and express what we do like, we find that we can unconditionally like our kids just as much as we unconditionally love them.

Second, saying “I like you” is novel and different. I don’t know many parents who say this. When we do, it strikes a special chord with our kids. There is a feeling of genuine interest and enjoyment that accompanies it. It gets rid of feelings of drudgery in the relationship. It makes things feel new again. As I’ve started to say this to each of my children, it’s as if a switch has flipped. They have opened up. The connection has deepened and love has increased.

“I Like You” Might be Just as Important as “I Love You”

“What are some things you really ‘like’ about your son?” I asked the frustrated mom in our counseling session. Not surprisingly, she had an answer. “I really like his cuddles at bedtime. I like when he asks me to read to him and I really like that he holds my hand every day. I even like his persistent nature.”

I responded: “So, maybe you really do ‘like’ and ‘love’ him. Maybe we all get frustrated from time to time and we don’t ‘like’ that frustration. I know I do things that bug my wife or kids and none of us like that irritable feeling that comes along for the ride in those situations.”

She sat a little straighter in her chair as she acknowledged, “I don’t ‘like’ arguments and power struggles, but I do ‘like’ and ‘love’ my son.” As she spoke, the light in her son’s eyes returned little by little.

Maybe it’s just as important to like our kids and tell them as it is to love them. It changes things to know that someone genuinely likes you “just because,” instead of feeling like they are committed to you and have some form of obligatory affection for you because they have to. Whether this perception of just being an obligation is real or not, the short, plain words “I like you” can be a wonderful remedy. So let’s drop the “I love them, but I don’t like them” and replace it with a simple, unassuming, “I like you!”

Andy Smithson is a husband, father of 5, therapist, parent coach as well as author and creator of Connect at Facebook or @theandysmithson.

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