They're the three words that have inspired thousands of songs and plenty of angst amongst romantic partners but when it comes to saying 'I love you' to our children, are things more straightforward? Can we say it too little or too much?
I know I say it an awful lot to mine – maybe five times a day or more. It's not really a conscious decision - I can't help it; it just pops out when I get that feeling of motherly adoration for my son.
It might be when we have a hug, when we say bye in the morning on school days (although now this is when we leave the car, as understandably he no longer wants his friends to hear it at the school gate), when we've collapsed in fits of giggles about something, when he's been especially kind or funny, or when he goes to bed at night.
I usually add another he doesn't even hear (as he's fast asleep) when I sneak in to give him a goodnight kiss at my own bedtime.
In an attempt to determine if I'm some kind of over-soppy freak or just at the affectionate and demonstrative end of normal, I discussed the matter with friends, colleagues and relationships experts.
I was almost relieved to find a mum, Harriet, who is even more prolific than I am: "I say it about 100 times a day!"
Others, such as Lyndsay, also confessed to being serial 'I love you'ers': "I say I love him all the time. It just slips out. It all seems perfectly natural to me."
Dr. Christine Carter, a sociologist and author of Raising Happiness, has reassuring views for gushing types such as myself, Harriet and Lyndsey: "I don't think those words can be said too much, nor is it really important, in my opinion, how they are said, so long as the sentiment is authentic and heartfelt.
Of course, kids won't notice as much when it is said in the same place/at the same time - but that doesn't make the words meaningless.
What about parents at the other end of the scale, who don't say it at all? Georgia is one of them: "I hardly ever tell my children, it's just not something we really say as a family."
David also doesn't say I love you to his kids. "I don't feel the need. They know I love them. What I do is more important than what I say."
Is this 'actions speak louder than words' argument valid?
Paula Hall, relationships expert at Relate, feels quite strongly about this: "It's essential to say it – we tend to assume people know we love them from the way we treat them but it's not always true and we sometimes find out later in life. When someone's in therapy as an adult and they say 'my mother never said I love you'.
"It does make a big difference also because as a child you learn how to express your feelings ready for your own relationships later on."
I'd assumed that a lot of the variation between those who say it and those who don't, was down to our own upbringings (my parents were, and are, still very verbally demonstrative, whereas my husband's were not and we do fit the moulds we've come from) but my little unscientific survey seems to go against this always being the case.
"My mum wasn't the huggy or cuddly kind at all, and she only started saying I love you routinely when we were adults and living in another country and calling on the phone," explains Lindsay.
"I never set out to be different, I just am different. I love cuddles, I love grabbing my son and showering him with kisses and saying 'I love you'."
Harriet is also going against the grain of her parents: "My mum and dad NEVER said it to me ever (it just wasn't something our family did). As a result I say it to mine a lot. Not sure it just 'pops out' as I still have some sort of hang-up from my youth but I ensure I say it regularly. I say it to my friends a lot too."
Perhaps the way society as a whole seems more comfortable with us all being more open about feelings these days is a factor here. The 'we don't gush', stiff upper lip mentality among previous generations, particularly in Britain, appears much less common now.
The only caveats our experts came out with about potentially saying 'I love you' too much is if it's not said with feeling. "If it's said as often as good morning then it can become meaningless," warns Paula Hall.
Worse though are parents using the words in a manipulative way. Kate, a mother of one, experienced this as a child.
"My mum would always scream at me 'but i love you!!!' when she was being vile, and I associated it not with love, but as a way for her to excuse her bad behaviour. I never told her that I loved her, and feel unable to tell my brother that I love him (although I do, very much)."
Somehow she does find it easier to say to her son though, "I tell him all the time. I feel it is so important HOW you tell them - I tell him completely without condition - I hate it when people say things like 'if you loved me you would... (do whatever). I want him to grow up feeling and knowing he is loved through deed and demonstration and being told, but without it being used as a weapon. "
Things can also get tricky with older children and teens, when some reach that stage when they just don't want to hear declarations of soppiness from their parents as it's 'sooooooo embarrassing'.
Georgia went through this: "My parents said it quite a lot when I was a teen and it used to make me cringe and drove me bonkers at that age.
There is also the side to this that you feel under pressure to say it back... and sometimes as a child or a teen you don't feel comfortable with that, especially if you are in hate-all-adults stage.
Of course my now seven-year-old might well start complaining at me soon about showering him with I love yous and kisses (in fact I do already hold back in public), but for now I'm enjoying the great big love in that we have while I can.
It feels absolutely natural and it's surely these kind of moments that I'll look back on fondly when he's left home and I'm an old lady with only the dog to hug and say I love you to.
How often do you say I love you to your children?
Do you think your own upbringing affects this?
More:Is It Just Me?
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