I’ll never forget the first time I heard the words. I was fifteen and caught in the turmoil of adolescence. My grandfather, who lived far away in another state, called and we chatted on the phone.
When we finished catching up on the latest news in my life, my grandfather ended the call with these words: “I love you.”
My breath caught in my throat. I couldn’t remember anyone in my family saying those words to one another, certainly not to me. The words were so unfamiliar that I didn’t know how to respond. But I knew that moment was a turning point, signaling a shift in my life.
He spoke words my heart desperately needed. I didn’t know how much I hungered for such affirmation until I tasted it for the first time. I think he learned a hard lesson when my grandmother died the year before and didn’t want to leave things left unspoken. Saying “I love you” became a regular pattern in our relationship from then on. It later became the pattern in my marriage and family.
Those were the last words I spoke to my grandfather before he passed away, and the words he spoke back to me in a post-stroke slur.
The Power of Words
Words are powerful, aren’t they? Both the things we say and the things we leave unsaid. As a child, I remember hearing people say, “stick and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” It’s simply not true. In fact, the words we use have the power to give life or bring death. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21). They can wound or heal, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). They can sooth or crush, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
What can be more life-giving than telling our children they are loved, valued, and treasured? Such words tell our children they are important; they matter. They have worth. These words nurture and strengthen their hearts.
Life-giving words are building words (1 Thessalonians 5:11). They are foundational. Over time, they give our children the strength to stand against the elements of the world around them. They are like a safe refuge for the weak and weary. No matter what our children hear spoken to them out in the world, they know they are loved and valued at home.
Affirming our Children
When we affirm our children, we should be specific. We can notice and point out the ways they help and thank them for it. We can describe the ways they are an integral and important part of our family. We can tell them what we love about their character or how hard they devote themselves to a project or how much their hugs brighten our day.
We can also use our words to point our children to the One who loves them best of all. We can teach them who they are as image bearers, created to mirror their Maker (Gen. 1:26). He knew them before time began. He carefully and lovingly crafted them in the womb (Ps. 139:13-14). They have value and worth because God made them. He treasures them. And he loved them so much, he sent his one and only Son to die for their sins. We love one another because he first loved us. As parents, when we affirm our children, we mirror God’s love for them in Christ.
And every day we tell our children we love them and treasure them. We tell them of the wonderful gift they are from God to our family. It can be a nightly ritual before bed, what we say before they leave for school, and anytime in between. There’s no limit to how often a person needs to hear they are important and loved.
In all these ways and more, we can use our words to build up our children. Throughout their lives, they will hear over and over that they are loved, valued, and treasured—by both God and their parents. And in so doing, we’ll leave them a legacy of love, as my grandfather did for me.