Can Love Be Taught?

Teaching children that love is more than infatuation ...
Teaching children that love is more than infatuation ... Photo: Getty Images

There are so many wonderful aspects to childhood. Everything is magical and simple. Children believe in Santa Claus. Bumps and bruises can be healed with a little kiss from mum or dad and young girls believe they’ll one day meet Prince Charming and live happily ever after.

But then the years pass by. Pink tutus are traded for formal dresses and young boys swap their matchbox cars for real ones. Kids also learn that Santa Claus is actually mum and dad and magic is just some kind of card trick. Life no longer seems so simple. But for whatever reasons, the idea of Prince Charming and living happily ever after is something many hold on to into adulthood.

This was evident in a recent survey in the UK. Siemens Festival Nights surveyed 2000 people and found 73 per cent didn’t think their partner was “The One”. Also, nearly 75 per cent said their idea of love changed as they got older, perhaps it became less ideal and more realistic.

But given that relationships are such a huge aspect of life, can parents help children understand love from a young age - setting them up with realistic expectations? Yes, they can. According to Dr Elizabeth Seeley-Wait, a child psychologist and founder of The Children’s Psychology Clinic based in Sydney, this could be one of the most important tasks of parenthood.

“Love is closely associated with attachment. How we become attached to our primary caregivers sets up our abilities to attach to others as children and also later as adults,” Elizabeth says. “The more we are shown how to do this through modelling and treatment, the more likely we are then able to love as adults.”

She also believes a child’s biggest influence when it comes to love is their parents’ relationship. “[Children] are aware from a young age that their parents are meant to be in love,” Elizabeth says. “Their definition of love is influenced by this and what they see.”

Ruth Taylor, Senior Educator at Relationships Australia, agrees with Elizabeth. “I think it is important for parents to remember that they are the role models of a loving relationship for their children and teens and to behave accordingly,” Ruth says.

Another important factor that influences children and teenagers’ view of love is the myths they hear about it in the stories and songs they listen to. Ruth explains how there are four main myths:

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1. There is a perfect partner for me out there somewhere
2. I will feel complete when I find that perfect partner
3. Love should be easy
4. Love is everlasting

“We now know from the research that has been done that the first stage of what is called love is actually infatuation—a hind-brain driven physiological reaction,” Ruth says. “This in love experience is time limited. When we fall out of love, it is actually time to learn how to love.”

It is this stage of the love process that parents can really influence their children’s expectations and behaviour. Ruth speaks of a book written by Dr Russ Harris, Act With Love, which explains how instead of thinking about love as a feeling, think about it as an action. While the feelings of love may come and go, what’s important is to be caring towards each other, regardless of feelings.

There are also a few other ways to help children understand love from a young age:

1. Talk about love

“Have talks about it and engage [your] children to speak about their emerging ideas regarding love,” Dr Elizabeth Seeley-Wait says. “Don’t force feed your points of view, but instead start a dialogue about the topic. Kids will be more open to talk or ask questions if this is a topic you revisit from time to time.”

2. Actions speak louder than words

If you want your children to grow up with a mature view of love, as parents, you will need to show it to them. If this is not possible, Elizabeth recommends openly discussing with your children some good examples of love in books or movies, or even other people’s relationships. “Point out the differences between a balanced mature love [versus] one based in fairy tales,” Elizabeth says.

3. Show children good times and bad in a relationship

While Elizabeth admits it is best to keep most arguments away from kids, she also explains how some arguing and then resolving in front of kids can be beneficial. “Kids need to see some process of working through issues as long as it’s modelling what we want kids to emulate.”

In reality, love may not be as simple and as magical as Prince Charming and Cinderella. It may require quite a bit of work to survive for better or for worse. But love is still extremely special and developing realistic expectations can help children grow into adults who find happiness in love and life.

How have you helped your child develop their understanding of love? Leave your comment below or join the discussion on the Essential Kids forum.

Nicole Thomson-Pride is a communications professional and a freelance writer. You can follow Nicole on Twitter here.

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