"I love you too," I say, squeezing her hand back, only slightly harder to make her yelp and giggle.
"I love you more!" she knocks back, a twinkle in her eye now.
"I love you most." I say, in mock triumph, knowing what's coming next. The ball is in Belle's court.
"I love you morstaristo!" Game, set and match. In our world, 'morstaristo' is the very most, so Belle wins.
We have this same conversation most days, at least once, and funnily enough Belle wins almost every time. Strange that. It seems to come quite naturally to us as a family to say 'I love you', (or our own versions of it at least, which in the case of my teen involves a mutation of the word 'love' into 'lube'...), but whilst some families take this verbal expression of love for granted, for others it is simply not the done thing. Partly it seems to be a generational thing, with parents nowadays bandying affection around with much more abandon than their parents before them.
"My parents never used to say they loved my brother or I," says Sharon, mum to two boys, aged eight and two, "although I did feel loved. They were quite reserved. Many years later, my brother and I can't say it to each other. Funny thing now is my parents tell me all the time these days over the phone (they live overseas) and of course I say it back."
Sharon's experiences with her own parents certainly haven't stifled her ability to express affection for her own children. "When it comes to our own kids, my husband and I tell them all the time how much we love them," explains Sharon, "how they're the best little boy and best big boy in the world, and they say it back several times a day, usually accompanied with Marmitey hugs."
I love that both of my children are so affectionate, although I have to be honest and say that as a particularly 'untactile' person, the hugs can sometimes be a little overwhelming. It's absolutely nothing to do with how much I love them, just than sometimes more than others I find it hard to have people up close and personal. I would never want them to think I didn't want to hug them though, even if just occasionally, inside, I want to shout 'enough with the hugging' and run away.
Why is it though that in some families expressing love so regularly and demonstratively is completely normal, and in others it is unheard of? And does it even matter?
I have thought a lot about how the amount of affection you receive as a child might impact on adult relationships, but have yet to reach a conclusion. Does being told every day how much you are loved leave you happy and secure, not needing the same reassurance as an adult, or does it set you up with unreasonable expectations, and leave you feeling unloved if a partner doesn't regularly tell you otherwise?
Margaret is a parent who doesn't tell her kids she loves them as often as she feel she should. "I don't tell my own kids enough," admits Margaret, "although it's easier to tell my daughter, who's now 22, as we are a bit more touchy feely. It's much harder to tell my 24-year-old son though. I tend to only do it when we have rows, and I find myself defending my point by stressing that I do love him."
Like Sharon, even though her parents didn't often tell her, Margaret didn't ever feel unloved. "It wasn't often said by my parents," she says, "but it was never in doubt. Even now, when they are in their 80s and I am in my 50s they prefer to tell me how proud they are of me."
Of course words are only a tiny part of how we communicate with our children, and you shouldn't worry that if you don't say it out loud, your children won't feel loved. We show our children we love them every day, in so many different ways, without even realising it.
In case you were in any doubt, here are just a few of the things we do naturally as parents that show our children we care:
Just stopping what you are doing, turning to face your child, and listening properly to what your child has to say is a hugely powerful way of showing them you love them, and that how they feel and what they have to say is important to you.
We all know that most communication comes not out of our mouths, but from our bodies. Physical expressions of love such as a cuddle or kiss, or even just holding hands, are just as important, if not more so, than the words themselves.
Sharing quality time
Reading a story together, playing a game, a trip to the park, or even just watching the TV together and having a cuddle, are all ways of showing affection. It's so easy in our hectic lives to forget how important these little chunks of time are, where we are focussed completely on our child, and not simultaneously cooking/working/blogging/washing up.
So don't worry if those three little words don't trip naturally off your tongue – just play a game, give your child's hand a squeeze, and they'll understand that you love them morstaristo.