By Lina Martinez

It is painfully easy to talk about paying it forward, helping those in need, or offering gestures of kindness to strangers. Buying coffee for the next car or giving food to a homeless family are great (and important) ways to pay it forward, but all of this rush to become not-so-impersonal with the outside world is one of the many things making our close relationships less personal. We dedicate our time, our energy, and our money to those we are closest to, and often it feels like that is enough, but it is easy to forget that our closest relationships need small acts of kindness too. Here are a few of our most cherished loved ones, and a few ways to make them smile:

Parents

It’s becoming more common for children to live with their parents well into adulthood, but most of us will eventually move out and move on with our lives. Life gets very hectic, and we often lose track of the fact that we are everything to our parents. Literally, everything. Even if we’ve grown distant, there is no underestimating how much our continued well being and success means to our parents. Our happiness is theirs; here are a few ways to share it with them:

You probably already call your parents for the big things, but it will bring them joy to occasionally get a phone call about the little things, too. Don’t accost them with everything that makes you smile, but if you see a miniature pony or a box of kittens that fills you with glee, call or text and let them share your delight. Did you take out the trash before it overflowed? Actually fold your laundry as soon as it came out of the dryer? Accomplish some seemingly unimportant task that filled you with pride? Call your mom (or dad.) They are proud of you too.

Always be on the lookout for things that remind you of them. Maybe they kind of like a certain celebrity or food (don’t go for their super obvious likes because it’s way less personal.) If you see it, buy it (or forward it, for the digital age.) If you see a heartwarming movie or read an inspirational story that can echo your relationship with them, tell them about it. Maybe find a caring quote that makes you think of them. Regardless of what it is, parents will always be overjoyed with any “saw this and thought of you” gesture, because you are always on their minds.

Significant Others

When it comes to significant others, especially spouses, it is easy to forget how to show kindness because day in and day out our lives are centered around them, and “us.” I’m not talking about snagging them a romantic gift or planning a surprise for a special occasion, as these are things that should hopefully be happening from time to time anyway. What I am suggesting is tossing them small, simple gestures that will floor them with little effort.

The first thing you may consider is sacrifice. Yes, you may have sacrificed your dream job to raise the children, or you may have sacrificed living in the city of your dreams so your spouse can have the job of their dreams, but those sacrifices are already well appreciated and are deeply ingrained in the fabric of your mutual experience. Making tiny sacrifices for them is a small way to make a huge impact. Call in sick for work to take care of them when they’re ill, or offer them the last cookie in the jar, especially if it’s your favorite kind.

Attention is always an important aspect of a healthy relationship. When your partner bids for your attention, even if it’s something as simple as “check out this headline in the paper,” it’s important to respond with kindness and not annoyance or anger, even if you are otherwise occupied.

Another way to make their day in seconds is to offer them a bit of attention when you’re busy with other people. Maybe you’re at a work party having an important discussion with the higher-ups, and your spouse is waiting patiently at your arm. Lean over and whisper “I love you.” In a hectic situation, like trying to get the whole family onto a flight or out of the state fair, take a moment to let them know that you don’t know what you’d do without them. Simple statements like this take seconds to say and will keep both of you in each other’s minds even when it’s important for your concentration to be elsewhere.

Small Children

For those of us raising children, the struggle is real. Almost everything we do, we do for them, and often times children have to grow into their gratefulness. It’s easy to forget that they don’t see things the way we do. Our dedication to their growth and happiness is not something they will fully be aware of or appreciate until they are well grown, and because of that, it is very important to offer them occasional and blatant gestures to encourage and build them up. Here are a few small ways to make a child’s day:

Ask them for advice. Perhaps your boss said something mean or inappropriate to you, or money is tight and you have to decide between buying groceries or paying the power bill. If you confide in your child for important things from time to time, it will add an immense layer of trust to your relationship, and you will be surprised how helpful their perspective may be.

Occasionally hand them control over a situation they rarely have a say in. On laid back weekends, let them choose the chore they do. When it comes to social obligations, kids usually get strung along to parties or family gatherings with no say. If you’re ever feeling wishy-washy about attending an event, leave the decision up to the children. Even if you don’t put the decision fully in their hands, offering them a choice between two options empowers them and makes them feel like they have control over their environment. If not eating their veggies is not an option, ask them if they’d like their dinner vegetable to be peas or carrots.

Defend them, even if you don’t always agree with them. There will be many times that someone will say something seemingly aloof to you, like, “Billy doesn’t play any sports?” or, “Why won’t Abby wear dresses?” It’s easy to make excuses for your child to accommodate your peers without thinking of how hurtful it can be. Whether Billy hears, “Oh, he’s not that kind of boy,” or “He’s not interested in sports, but he’s an amazing baker!” will have a huge impact on his self-esteem.

Finally, gratitude.

Above all, no matter who or what relationship you’re in, it is paramount to exude gratitude, even for the smallest gestures. You can never show people enough of how much you appreciate them, and you never know when your last chance to make them feel loved and valued will be.

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license

Lina Martinez has her B.S. in journalism and is a contributor to our politics, life and money pages. She once admitted over drinks to singing "Careless Whisper" in the shower. We are still trying to get her to sing it at karaoke.