I love my children. I mean I really love them. I would step between them and a man with a gun and I think it is no exaggeration to say I would take a bullet for them. That’s my benchmark for love. When I say love, that’s the feeling I am referring to. When I say ‘I love you’ -which I don’t do very often, I mean it.
This is a shift from previous generations. I think in my whole life I only heard my mother say once that she loved us- her children. We didn’t ask ourselves if she and my dad loved us or not, we knew they did by the way they behaved. They sacrificed things so we could have a better life, they worried about us, they supported us in the things we decided to do. They proved it in deeds. They didn’t have to say in in words. Now the word is everywhere.
When I started to study child psychology, there was a lot of talk about parent-induced guilt. The worst thing a mother could do was to manipulate her child into compliant behaviour, by saying something to the effect of ‘Mummy won’t love you if you do that’. There were slightly more nuanced versions; ‘I still love you but I don’t like you’ or a more subtle version, ‘I love you but I don’t like what you are doing.’ (Love the sinner but reject the sin). Withdrawal of love was a major parenting offence. Making a child feel bad in any sense is now verboten and has been replaced by the mission of building a child’s self esteem. (There are consequences of this but more of that another time.)
I’m not in favour of making a child insecure by making it appear that love is conditional. My point is that overuse of a word tends to devalue it. I think we should let our children know that we love them for who they are, but I really don’t think it’s necessary to tell them we love them twenty times a day. More telling doesn’t mean more feeling. In particular, I dislike the use of ‘love you’ as a substitute for ‘goodbye’. It’s hard to think it means anything special when it’s said ten times a day as throwaway parting.
I once upset a lot of people on a parenting website by telling a story in which one of my children whined, ‘Why does he (her brother) get (something really small and unimportant) and I don’t.’ I answered ‘Because I love him more than you!’ Oooohhhhh!!!! You would have thought that I was planning child sacrifice. Angry parents asked how I could even suggest that I loved one more than the other. Answer is, mostly because I didn’t love one more than another and everyone knew it. It was just a slightly brutal way of closing down a silly complaint; a way of saying your complaint has no substance and my reply is equally without substance.
Now everyone is declaring their love, saying it loud and saying it proud. What possesses someone in an audience to yell I love you, at the performer? When a member of the audience yelled ‘I love you’ at Amy Winehouse in a concert, she more or less responded by saying isn’t there anyone else in your life. She knew the phoniness of it. She didn’t do what most American singers would have done and said I love you too! Oh give me a break! No, you don’t. You don’t know me, how can you say you love me.
The word love has become rather like the obscene swear words that are so everyday now and were taboo when I was a child. Those words have lost their shock value. Does it matter? Probably not, but what do you say now when something really angers you? when there are no taboo words to express your fury.
I feel that the word ‘love’ has lost its special power as well. How do you express a deeply personal and special emotion when the words you use have become so commonplace?