Showing Children How To Love: A Year-Round Gift

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

“How did you know your parents loved each other?” Looking for material for a Valentine’s Day story, I took a poll of adult friends as we sat around waiting for our kids to get out of the locker room. Sadly, some people answered, “They never did.” Or, worse: “Are you kidding? They hated each other.” For most, though, the question brought a smile and a thoughtful response.

“I could tell by the way my dad’s face lit up when my mom came in the door,” said Peg. “That’s really all. They never were particularly huggy types. I think if my sister and I ever saw them kiss, we would have been shocked. But he was always so genuinely glad to see her, like it was new. And she would just kind of smile back.”

Brad’s folks were equally undemonstrative. But after he thought about it, he shared a memory of evenings at his house when he was a teenager. “My mom hated TV. She loved to read. Dad had to watch whatever sport was on the tube. A picture of them I carry around in my head is both of them on the couch with my mom’s feet in my dad’s lap. She’s reading even though he’s whooping about some play.” “Did you see that?” he’d ask her. And she’d look up and smile and go back to her book and he’d massage her feet. I mean, that’s real love.”

“My folks always sent us all away from the table after dinner so they could have their coffee and cigarettes together.” Dan warmed to his story. “We knew not to go back in the kitchen for what seemed like a long time. They told us it was their time. Sometimes I’d go in to grab something I’d forgotten and they’d be holding hands across the table.”

“When I was little, my folks had their ‘date night’,” replied Jan. “Looking back on it, I know that they didn’t do stuff that was all that special. A movie maybe. Sometimes out for dinner at the local family restaurant. But my dad would change out of his usual work clothes and my mom would get a little dressed up and put on some lipstick. I can still remember the smell of the cologne she used. They’d kiss us kids goodbye and you could tell they were glad to go out together.”

“I don’t mean to break the romantic mood,” said Jack, “but my folks are loud! They shout at each other. They argue. They bicker. But somehow we never questioned that they loved each other. With things that counted, they pulled together. They still do.”

“My parents divorced when I was very young and never did get along. But my mom and stepdad were really into making events out of special days of the year.” My friend June smiled at the memory. “Their birthdays, their anniversary, and especially Valentine’s Day were an excuse for doing things like having breakfast in bed or inviting the relatives over for a big meal. They did it for us kids too. But it made an impression on me that they made a big deal out of each other’s special days. I don’t remember any of my friends’ parents doing that.”

Teaching Our Children about Love

What is this thing called love, anyway? Can you imagine anything more abstract, more mysterious, for a child to figure out? Yet all of these memories are times when, as children, these people were taking in the fact and act of loving. As one of my teachers used to say, “Kids pick up the adults’ attitudes through the soles of their feet.” They know when there is anticipation, pleasure, affection, and warmth, even if few words are said. Kids who regularly see their parents and other adult couples loving each other are kids who are learning how to love on an almost cellular level. They are the lucky ones who will someday intuitively know how to be in a relationship.

Valentine’s Day gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk to our kids about what makes loving and being loved such a joyful part of the human experience. Flowers and cards, whether sentimental or goofy, are fun. I’m firmly of the opinion that we should take any excuse to have a party. But the stories make it clear that talking about it and eating chocolate are really optional. It’s the doing, the little gestures of togetherness, affection, respect, and just being interested in each other, that add up over time and develop a child’s internal sense of what makes love work. Our children look to us and see their futures. When we let them see us loving our partners, we are showing them that lasting love really is possible.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2009). Showing Children How To Love: A Year-Round Gift. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/showing-children-how-to-love-a-year-round-gift/0001573
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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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