Growing up there are three distinct things I can remember hearing:
1) the sound of hellos and kissing from my parents when they saw each other after a long day of work (they were in their 40s and it was just gross because we all know grown folks cannot be physically affectionate to each other around their kids.)
2) My mom saying to me "remember who you are and whose you are" before I would go hang out with friends on a weekend, which basically forced me to ask myself if the events to come that night would be good for me or not which can be a bit jarring for a 16-year-old boy.
3) Either my mom or dad telling me this: "Son, have I told you how much I love you today and that I'm proud of you?"
I didn't fully appreciate my parents' words until I was in college and met different people whose experiences growing up were vastly different from mine. Surprise! Not every kid grows up in a loving home with two parents who love each other well and encourage their children with regularity.
My parents could have easily said a simple "I love you" each day, and it would have sufficed. But as I look back on it, I remember adding "I'm proud of you" that that sentiment of love meant more to me than anything else.
Now with my own kids, I try to, from time-to-time, tell my daughters that I'm proud of them. Loving them is great. But it doesn't go far enough. I think there are three reasons to not just tell your child you love them, but that you're proud of them as well.
#1- It validates effort.
For as lazy as they are about cleaning their rooms, washing their hands, and following basic instruction, kids do have things they're putting effort into. For us, our girls are working on homeschool tasks, cleaning various rooms (among other chores), practicing choir and piano, unique demands around the house (don't put too many ornaments together on the Christmas tree...spread them out!), reading books, and basic manners. They're putting in effort in a variety of ways. They don't do it perfectly (ever) but they're trying. When I tell them I'm proud of them for reading a book or cleaning a mess without being told or talking properly to an adult, it validates their effort.
And the effort is essential. These are little people learning everything for the first time. Sure they'll get things right, but a lot of things they'll mess up on and have to do over again. And over. And over and over. But telling them you're proud of them tells them "Hey kiddo, I know you didn't get it this time, but you're trying. I'm proud of you for that."
#2- It gives a solid foundation.
A thing my dad used to do that frustrated me like crazy was in the middle of a baseball or basketball game or maybe after, he would tell me the same thing: "Son, I love you and I'm proud of how you played." Often times I was like "Great. Thanks, dad. I just struck out four times to a pitching machine and watched two balls go through my legs at second base. What are you proud of exactly?"
But as I look back on it, my dad might have had some tips on how to swing better, or how to play better defense. But he knew really what I needed was a foundation of love and encouragement. I had teammates that were likely frustrated at my poor play. Probably their parents were too. I'm sure my coach was. But my dad knew I was trying. He knew the last thing I needed was to be reminded of how I was messing up. Nothing gave me comfort like him telling me he was proud of me.
#3- It motivates character.
In our accomplishment-driven society, what will motivate young people to do things that aren't rewarded in any tangible way? Mom and dad being proud of them will. There's no trophy for good manners. There's no certificate for cleaning the bathroom. There's no pizza parties or cupcakes for being disciplined to not bite your nails. But when our kids hear that we're proud of them for what might be viewed by others as tiny accomplishments, it only motivates them to continue down that path.
All of our kids have tiny battles going on: am I doing this right? Does he/she want to be my friend? But I can't help biting my nails! I really want to sneak a piece of candy...nobody will ever know. Our pride in them is based not just on what they're doing, but what we know they're capable of. Setting expectations is important, but if we never let our children know where they are in proximity to meeting those expectations, how can we really encourage them?
Today when you see your kid, tell them you love them. Wrap your arms around them and squeeze them and give them a big kiss. Then look them in their eye and tell them how proud of them you are. Then make it a habit. And watch the difference it makes in their lives.