I caught myself doing it again. My lanky 4-year-old was grinning from ear-to-ear as she showed off her latest skill she’d learned in dance class. I tousled her hair and whispered it: “I like you so much!” I remember one of the first times I said it to her, and it just felt right. I have always told her “I love you,” but now there’s a fresh word in my vocabulary that completes the picture. This isn’t to say that I verbalize either of these words enough, I’m probably about average when it comes to husbands and fathers who fail to speak words of affection to their spouses and kids. But it’s something I want to grow in. And to grow in it, I need to think about it (and write about it). So, after some time pondering why “like” felt so different, here are a few reasons that inspire me to use this word more frequently.
“Love” overlooks the bad; “like” revels in the good.
Deeply rooted in the Christian faith and in western culture more broadly is this notion that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The power of love is found in its ability to forgive, to heal, and to restore relationships marred by our inevitable human tendency to hurt others. But “like” shows approval in what someone is doing. We frequently have to remind our kids that we do still love them after they’ve done wrong and experienced consequences for their wrongdoing; however, there needs to be a way to high-five them in the good stuff they’re doing. For example, I “like” someone’s Facebook post because it’s something I agree with. So when I tell my daughter that I like her, I’m affirming that she’s doing what seems right to me—I want her to feel validated and valued in her father’s mind for the good that she does. There’s nothing more she needs to do, no look she has to achieve, no academic award she has to win, nothing. You’ve got my thumbs up, girl!
“Love” can be done out of duty; “like” demonstrates delight.
You can tell a husband to love his wife. We make this unilateral promise at the altar to love each other until death parts us because love is a volitional responsibility that can be maintained regardless of physical intimacy or emotional connection. Love is a sacrificial and big word that means a whole lot more than we’d often like to admit. But because of its bigness, we can be lulled into feeling that we’ve done our job when we don’t walk out, keep paying the bills and save up for their obscenely expensive college tuition. I understand that love should be more than this, but sometimes we’re too satisfied with achieving the bare minimum of the Great Commands.
So kids need to hear that you delight in them beyond the mere daily obligation you have to them. I “like” my morning cup of coffee because it gives me joy and makes me feel human again. I “like” a good book because it satisfies an intellectual or emotional need. My girls need to hear that I like to see their smiles, to hear them sing, to watch them dance, to comfort them when they’re sad, and to celebrate with them in their successes. Just as I need to know that my Heavenly Father rejoices—he sings and shouts and claps his hands—over me (Zephaniah 3:17), my kids need to know that I feel the same way about them. I don’t begrudgingly carry them, wake up for them, or clean up after them; I exult in them.
“Love” is for the long haul; “like” is in the moment.
Love has this durative capacity that makes it essential for families to work. I will always love my girls regardless of what career choices they make, who they date, where they move, or what they come to believe. But liking someone is an expression of the more fickle sort. It’s here one moment and may be gone the next. While that quality may lead us to devalue telling someone we love that we also like them, I think that it adds a fresh dimension to our value of someone we love. We are souls that exist within the confines of time and space, so there is value in speaking pointedly and exclusively to the present. Telling my girls that I like them speaks to the moment we’re in—right here, right now—and tells them that I think they’re wonderful. When I want to speak beyond the long-term and say something intensely appropriate for the present moment, “I like you” is a perfect way to express that feeling.