The simple question hung like a tinkling bell in the air over my 2-year-old son's head. It stopped me from closing the door to his room after putting him to bed for the night.
“I love you,” he followed up, more sugary than the dessert table at a Relief Society function. My heart drizzled down to my toes. I reopened the door and threw my arms around my little boy.
“I love you too,” I said as his arms tightened around my neck. “I love you too.”
This marked the first time he had ever gone out of his way to share that sentiment with me, though I had told him countless times. Worse yet, he constantly told Mommy how much he loved her. It grated on me.
I knew exactly why he had chosen that moment to tell me. He had just come home from a weekend at my wife's family's ranch, where he had gotten to see his beloved tractors in action. He now has three dang-near life-sized tractors that take up a good chunk of his room's footprint, and we now go out of our way to inform gift-givers “No more big toys! Please!” He loves those toys, but nowhere near as much as the real, drivable thing.
So after he came home and it was my turn to put him to bed, I seized the opportunity to get him talking about his trip. And boy did he ever jabber. I must have listened for 20 minutes while he gabbed – mostly incoherently – about the tractors and other experiences involving cows and mud that I couldn't quite piece together. He talked animatedly, with his hands telling the story better than his words sometimes. At one point, he was telling me how the tractor was rolling through the mud, and started making stirring motions with his hands. I listened and asked leading questions, smiling and nodding the whole time while wondering what the heck the kid was talking about.
It was only after this extended conversation that I finally got an unsolicited “I love you.” This was a powerful lesson to me. Talking to your children is incredibly important. He knew how much I loved him, I'd told him so many times and shown it in countless ways. But it wasn't until I let all the attention fall on him and his experiences that he wanted to tell me the same thing.
He was barely two years old, and had the propensity to talk a mile a minute, actually saying maybe one in every three words he actually paraded through his tiny cranium. So I understood very little of our 20-minute conversation, but the “I love you” was crystal clear.
It doesn't matter if you don't understand everything a child is saying – speaking with them from an early age is vitally important. It's proven to develop language capabilities, improve parent-child relationships, cut down on frustrated tantrums when they aren't understood, and most importantly show love rather than tell about it. Bantering with a child, encouraging conversation, and the natural corrections that occur during conversation will build a vocabulary (“We were on this part of the tractor that went up like this,” “Oh, a scoop?” “Yeah, we were on the tractor's scoop...”) and build a relationship.
In my opinion, there's things that have to start early or they may never happen. Just imagine trying to strike up a conversation with a teenager about the girl he likes in class if you never asked him what his favorite toy was when he was 3. Those pathways are vitally important, but difficult to stake out. A child's conversation may not be as enthralling as talking to a world traveler, but if you don't start beating a path through the brush when they are young, the path may never develop. Consequently, you'll be left with an overgrown, primitive, and unrecognizable path of communication with your child as he matures.
You will draw closer to your child by talking to him than even playing with him actively. At least the child will draw closer to you. That one-on-one time will help children know how to interact with adults, help them communicate more effectively, and most important, show them how much you care.
How do you communicate to your children who can barely talk?