How to say “I love you” without saying “I love you”

mom and daughter PAID

Studies have shown that our children learn more from what we model for them than from what we try to teach them with our words.  Think about it for a moment, does your child learn more when you lecture him about how to treat the family dog, or when he sees you gently stroking the dog’s head?  Does she learn more when you admonish her to say I’m sorry, or when she hears you expressing regret?  Like it or not, your child pays more attention to what you do than to what you say.

So even though it feels good to hear the words, “I love you,” it feels even better when someone consistently acts in a way that conveys love and caring.

Here are 7 ways that you can say “I love you” through your actions:

  1. Be present with your child.  Be fully aware and attentive to her being.  Lay aside all distractions (email, cell phone, to-do list) and just BE with your child, letting her guide all action (or inaction).  (Do this at least 10 minutes every day and see what a difference it makes in your child’s behavior).
  2. Listen with your whole being when he speaks to you. Get down to his level (whether that’s kneeling down or sitting beside him), look into his eyes, and listen with your ears and your heart.  This may not be possible every time he speaks, but do it consistently enough that he feels that his voice matters to you.
  3. Make your child feel special by letting him know what you notice and appreciate about him.  I used to play a game with my kids called “What I like best about you is …..”  and I would fill in the blank with something I noticed, liked, or enjoyed about them.  They could never get enough of this game and when the neighbors’ kids heard us playing this, they also started coming to me and asking, “What do you like best about me?”
  4. Ask them what you can do to make their lives more wonderful (that doesn’t involve spending money).  And then do more of those things.
  5. Get out the baby books and go through their birth and newborn pictures with them.  Children love to hear their birth stories and it will renew your feelings of that deep awesome wonderlove as you remember the first time you met.
  6. Let your children “accidentally overhear” you saying nice things about them to someone else.  Kids come to expect that we will say nice things about them to their face simply because we’re their parents.  So when they “overhear” you talking about them to someone else, it feels more objective and boosts their self-image and self-esteem.
  7. Stay loving and affectionate even when your child is acting out and losing it.  Let him know you’re on his side even as you hold loving limits and accept his intense feelings about those limits.  When your kid is the most unlovable…is when he needs love the most.  

For the next week, act on the list above–try a different one each day.  At the end of the week, ask your child, “What makes you feel loved?”  Her answer can help you refine and keep adding to your list.

And also….keep saying “I love you.”  


  1. Hello Sherri,
    Thanks for another of your beautifully practical postings.

    Some thoughts came to me…
    #7: when a child is ‘acting out,’ as parents we would have to ask ourselves “what (inner struggle) is my child acting out (through their behavior). Whether it is a need they have, or something else. A helpful question to ask is what is being acted out.

    #3: this is a tricky one; we live in a society where most people are rarely told about how beautifully they are as a person, yet overdoing it breeds narcissistic tendencies (I’ve seen this in an adult, who ended-up demanding that others play the game with her), and bolsters a false self of self-esteem. It might be more helpful (in terms of healthy psychological development) to also have a child reflect on who they are, and what they believe about themselves.

    Thanks for your practical tips Sherri, they’re always helpful,


  2. Great stuff, Sherri! Thanks so much for sending this at Valentine’s, and giving me ideas of ways to make the day more meaningful :). I especially like the idea of letting the children overhear you saying nice things.

  3. Sherri Boles-Rogers says:

    Love your comments James.
    #7: it’s an accurate term, isn’t it? “acting out”…because that’s what they’re doing…acting out their feelings and underlying needs. It is a helpful question to get curious about what’s going on below the behavior.
    #3: I totally agree about having the child reflect on “who they are, and what they believe about themselves.” Over time, our game of “What I like best about you is…” evolved into the kids telling each other what they liked about the other (great feedback) and then completing the sentence for themselves, “What I like best about me is…” It really helped them become more aware of their uniqueness, talents, abilities, and values and (hopefully) helped to grow their self-appreciation and self-love.

  4. Sherri Boles-Rogers says:

    I’m glad you enjoy the suggestions Audrey and hope they bring mutual connection and caring to your family.

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