Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

On Signaling Love To Our Children

DENVER, CO - I met a young father (he has two kids under 5) yesterday who is a political science professor at Colorado State University. We were swapping stories and ideas about fatherhood and generally having a good chat over a beer. As one might expect, he was fairly familiar with social science research about parenting. I was surprised to find out that nobody really knows anything, empirically speaking, on what parenting strategies actually work.

The only clear finding, he said, was that being loving and kind to your children matters a lot. Moreover, he said, having loving parents even has observable effects as children age into the 70's and 80's.

As a soon to be father, this was reassuring. One because that's the only real concrete objective I have as a father right now (that I will love our children unconditionally), and two, because it helps me feel less pressured about being a perfect dad / mentor / friend / provider / disciplinarian / chef etc. It's a lot easier to focus on one thing that really matters (being loving and kind) rather than stressing about every single decision I ever make as a father about everything from schools to organic greek yogurt.

But that raises an important, tactical question - how do you show your kids that you love them unconditionally? Because it would seem to me that loving them only matters if they feel loved. If I loved our children fiercely, but they never felt and understood that love, does it really matter?

So, to me, love is an act of signaling, in a way. I as a father, say or do something, and that action (ideally) signals to my children that I love them unconditionally. The signal has two components - the message (I love you unconditionally) and the intended recipient (my children). So there's two challenges here - you have to send a clear, understandable message, and, you have to send that message to the right person.

I suppose I have a few ideas on how to signal to my children that I love them unconditionally, but I won't go into that. Every person, not just every kid, understands love differently. The way you show love is highly dependent on who you are trying to show that love to. I highly recommend the Five Love Languages as a mental model for thinking about how to signal love effectively. So anything I can say probably won't be broadly relevant.

The flash of insight I had is that it's easy to signal to the wrong person, unintentionally.Let's take a child's birthday party as an example (I missed my cousin's / nephew's 1st birthday party this weekend because I was in Denver for a bachelor party, so birthday parties have been on my mind lately).

In theory, as parents Robyn and I would throw a birthday party to celebrate our child's life and make them feel special (i.e., signaling that we love them and that we value their life). This is why we'd invite lots of friends and family, put in effort to have nice food and ambience, eat cake, etc. The effort we put in signals to our kids that we love him or her and that celebrating birthdays is a way to show love to others. Throwing a party is great fun for the child (and everyone else), but the fun matters less (I think) than the signal of love that it sends.

But let's say we went a little crazy on the birthday party. Say we went over the top with lavishness. Maybe we invited some parents out of obligation and to make people think we are generous, instead of their connection to our family. Maybe leading up to the event we were obsessed with throwing an awesome party, rather than paying attention to our child and getting him or her excited for the day.

In a hypothetical situation like this, who would we really be signaling to? Our child, or to the party guests?

I don't think we'd be signaling love to our child. Rather, I think we'd be feigning the appearance that we love our child to others, without our child actually feeling that love. Worst, the party might not be about love at all, it might be a signal of our social status to those we invite (or who follow us on Instagram). 

The point of this thought, though, is not to razz on parents that get wrapped up in their community standing to the detriment of their children. The point is that signaling matters. That signaling has two components, the message and who it's supposed to be going to.

Especially when it comes to showing our kids that I love them, I want to be intentional about both. Really, signaling love is the most important thing they need me to get right.

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com