One of the most important things we can teach our children, perhaps the most important thing, is how to be loved and loving. We can’t protect them from the many difficulties, even tragedies, of life. But we can teach them how to surround themselves with support and love. People who are loved have people around them to celebrate the good times, to share life’s triumphs, and to manage the rough spots. People who have solid relationships are seldom lonely and seldom lost, no matter how challenging or painful their life’s course. People who are loved have a security deep inside that makes it possible to take risks and to accept defeats. People who are loved during life die satisfied.
As basic and important as love is, it certainly isn’t simple. I know it doesn’t sound very romantic, but love is a skill as well as an emotion. It’s something we do as well as something we feel. Love has to be reciprocal and active if it is to last. People who don’t know how to do love — to both give it and receive it — often lose it.
The only exceptions to this rule are “mother-love” and “God-love.” Mom and God each cut us far more slack than anyone else ever will (and often far more than we deserve). As soon as we reach beyond Mom and God, however, love becomes very complicated.
Why? Because with everyone else there is an eternal tension between the “I” and the “We.” I want what I want when I want it. But I also want to be close to others — who want what they want when they want it. How an individual negotiates that tension between “I-ness” and “we-ness” determines how loved or alone he or she will be. How she or he manages that tension with a particular loved one determines the depth and breadth of their relationship.
The key to bridging the “I” and the “We” is sharing. Whether we are 2 years old, 15, or an adult, sharing is tough. Sharing requires a certain degree of selflessness. Sharing requires caring enough about the relationship to put it ahead of personal desires and needs. Learning and practicing sharing is a lifetime effort that, when done well, leads to a lifetime of love.
Effective Parents Teach Their Children about Love
So, given all this theory, what’s a good parent to do to teach a child about how to love? Here are some ways that effective parents help their children learn and practice the skill and art of loving.
- Model sharing and consideration for others, including your partner, your children, and your friends. Kids breathe what we do and say. Your willingness to be unselfish when it would be easier not to be really does matter.
One mother I know says that she tries to take an attitude of “why not” rather than “why” whenever someone asks her to do something. She has found that this fundamental shift in her thinking makes an enormous difference in how she gets along with others.
- Name loving acts. Help your children recognize when they are showing love in ways big and, especially, in ways small.
One of my teachers used to talk a lot about the importance of catching children being right. Noticing and commenting when your children do something thoughtful, selfless, or helpful helps them to understand something as abstract as loving and makes them want to do it again.
- Make a conscious effort to do something subtle and personally meaningful for those you care about as often as you can. Most people don’t want parades and flowers (well, maybe occasionally they do). Most people feel very, very loved when someone makes a call during a rough week, remembers how they like their coffee or does an errand they find hard to fit into the day. It really is the little things that count.
A friend of mine knew I was having a particularly difficult day at work. Her children had given her some flowers for her birthday that she had placed on her desk. When I came back from lunch, there on my desk were a few flowers in a paper cup. A dozen roses in a crystal vase couldn’t have pleased me more. She noticed when I was struggling and let me know simply and eloquently that I wasn’t alone.
- Make sure that your kids learn how to recognize when people have extended themselves for them and help them learn ways to express appreciation. Love is an interaction between people. Children as young as 18 months can understand that they need to say thank you when they have been on the receiving end of love. The rote response that comes after a parental prompting will become their own response in time.
From the time her children were able to hold a crayon, a neighbor of mine has helped her children draw and “write” thank-you notes whenever they received a gift. By the time they were teens, her kids automatically sat down with paper and pen to acknowledge the thoughtfulness of others. The key to this good behavior is that their mother didn’t see it as an odious chore but rather as a very, very important part of maintaining relationships. When the kids were little, she made a game out of it. As they grew, she helped them understand the richness that comes from graciously receiving love and sending it back as a verbal hug.
- Don’t forget to show affection. Everyone needs touch and hugs and little gestures of connection and contact — especially when they don’t feel that they deserve it.
One of my friends claims that it takes a minimum of three hugs a day for kids to grow into healthy adults. I don’t know if there is scientific evidence for this idea, but I do know that her kids seem really secure and happy.
Love and Be Loved
The secret to being loved, if you haven’t already guessed, is to be more loving. And Valentine’s Day offers the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to those we love exactly how we feel about them.
Valentine’s Day — what a wonderful holiday! For over a thousand years, there has been a day dedicated entirely to love. Regardless of whether we are in the midst of romance, Valentine’s Day gives us all a chance to reflect on the love we have in our lives and to show our appreciation and gratitude for it. Whether we send cards, share chocolates and flowers, help our children address cartoon valentines for classmates and friends, or simply make an extra effort to say “I love you” to those we care about, we are practicing the doing of love. Practice doesn’t make love “perfect,” but it does make it real, and having real love in our lives is something worth celebrating.