To my surprise and disappointment, I recently realized that I’ve never seen anything written on teaching children how to love. Showing by example, yes. Telling them they should, yes. But the direct, nuts and bolts of how to love, no.
My experience is limited, of course, everyone’s is, but I’ve been around and I’ve read a lot, and I’ve never seen anything directly addressing this. The closest I could think of was Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, but that was clearly directed toward adults.
I did some searching and found a few things on the general subject (and God bless the people who put in that time and effort), but it wasn’t what I was looking for: They taught kids about love, not how to love.
I am convinced that children need to be taught how to love. These things don’t need to be murky mysteries, and they shouldn’t be. And, given the deep importance of actual love in the world (which I think is immense), our ongoing failure to teach this subject has been a stupendous loss.
What Do We Mean By Love?
An important first lesson is to make clear what we mean by love. Because the word sells well, it’s used a lot, and in confusing ways, as a catch-all term. We adults may get the general drift of what’s being expressed, but young children will often be confused. That confusion, first of all, wastes their time. Secondly, it may derail a good deal of growth, at least until they build a broad enough picture to sort things into.
Acting lovingly in front of children, fundamental and crucial though it may be (and it is), isn’t really enough. Children are intelligent, even if ignorant, and they will see you not just at your best, but also at your worst. In other words, in real life you’ll mess up from time to time, muddying the message. Having a clear understanding will anchor them in useful ways.
Now, moving along to definitions:
The type of love I’m talking about is not a stronger version of like, as in “I love chocolate.” Nor is it sexual attraction. What I’m addressing is close to what the old Greeks called agape. And what I mean, precisely, is this:
Love is a hunger to bless.
At its base, this is a primal desire to improve other beings, tinged with divinity. And so I call it a hunger to bless. Not to recompense (fine as that may be), but to pour out and/or to cause. When loving this way, you assume yourself to be a source… and a powerful source.
Translating this concept into child language, we get something like: Wanting to make someone better.
Better, of course, would include happier, healthier, and so on.
So, the child must first understand what you mean by love. And that means that you have to translate this concept into whatever terms the child is able to grasp. Once the child is older and asks about other uses of “love,” you can explain about “I love chocolate” and so on.
English, which is usually very useful for shades of meaning, lacks words for clearly expressing the various types of love.
Starting At The Roots
Love requires compassion for others, or at least sympathy for them. I won’t try to properly separate those two terms here, but recognizing the feelings of others – the inner state of others – is crucial, and it’s something that children need to be taught. All decent parents will do this, but they do it in the form of unhappy reactions, not as clear concepts delivered comfortably.
So, we need to teach our children to see the inner state of others; to build images in their mind of what the people in their life are like internally; how they feel, how they would react in certain situations.
There is a valid question as to when a child’s brain is ready to build that type of image, and to hold dozens of them at once. I don’t know the answer to that, and I suspect it’s not for several years. But we need to deliver these concepts, and hopefully not when we’re angry and scolding the child.
Here are a few sample phrases:
- How do you think Mom feels when you say _____________?
- How do you think Dad feels when you ____________?
- How to do think Jimmy felt when you took his toy away? How would you feel if Jimmy took your toy away?
- Your job is to protect [little brother, Grandma, whomever] from feeling bad.
- “Make [Mom, Dad, whomever] feel like you love them… like you want them to be happy.”
In all of these cases, we want to child to build up an image of the inner life of others, and to compare it to their own inner life. That’s the root ability that needs to sprout and to flower.
These phrases are actually precursors to the Gold Rule, which makes a nice compliment to all of the above: “We treat people the way we’d like to be treated.” Teach that whenever you can: it’s the foundation of moral clarity and of more or less all the decency on this planet.
Children are not quite the same as adults. More than that, we can’t see what’s going on inside of them. And, as noted above, it may be some time before the child’s brain is physically ready to work “others as yourself” into their thinking very deeply. All of this means that you can teach these lessons for a good while without observing results.
The solution to this problem is to start anyway, and to persist. You don’t have to pound these lessons every day, but you have to deliver them regularly, and over a long time. And while I again have no proof for this, it’s best to deliver these lessons warmly and not as scolding.
If you see a better path to understanding for your child, use it (or at least test it and see if it works), but don’t stop delivering the basics until you’re sure they rooted. We need our children to see the inner state of others: That is the central goal.
My best advice is that you keep teaching this concept in any way you can, being aware that it will be a long process. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate results. Just keep pressing on, as they used to say.