Thursday, February 14, 2013

Teaching Children to Love

It's Valentine’s Day today and I'm thinking a lot about love.

My favorite moments are those when Braden, seemingly out of nowhere, will whisper, “I love you, Mommy.”  Most of the time it’s in a sleepy state, after he has just woken up, or is about to fall asleep.  Other times, it’s directly related to something I’ve just done for him, something he wants to say thank you for, or to let me know that he appreciates me.  Whatever the reason, those three little words melt my heart.

As a child, I didn’t often hear my father tell me that he loved me.  In fact, I could probably tell you the exact moments that he did.  Did I know, then, that he loved me?  Sure.  But I can remember longing just to hear him say those words out loud.  I can also remember asking my mother, “Why doesn’t Papi tell me that he loves me?”  She replied, “You know Papi loves you, he just shows you in different ways.” 

As I got older, and would inevitably ask again, my mom’s responses provided more details: “Papi didn’t really hear ‘I love you’ growing up, so it’s hard for him to say it.  He doesn’t tell me that he loves me, but I know that he does.  He shows he loves you by working hard and providing for you.”  Sure, that was all true, but I just wanted to hear him tell me. 

As a young adult, I remember sitting my dad down and telling him how I felt.  “Papi, I know you love me, but I need to hear you tell me.  I want you to tell me you love me like other Dads tell their daughters.”  Now, I had no idea if other dads did, in fact, tell their daughters that they loved them, but I had assumed they did and I wanted, no, I needed him to tell me.  You know what?  He did!  He started telling me that he loved me more often.

As a mother, I must tell Braden I love him at least a hundred times a day!  Does my telling him so often take away from the meaning?  Does he also know that I love him by my actions?  Will he ever wish I had told him more often, or worse yet, less?

I recently asked Braden, “Do you know what it means to love someone?”  To which he replied, “It means you want to be next to that person all day long, and that makes you happy.  But when you can’t be next to them, you are sad.  Like when I go to school, I know you are on the floor below my classroom, but I want you to be in my classroom, so that makes me sad.  I will follow whoever I love wherever they go.”  For Braden, to love someone means to be in their physical presence, but being in their absence causes sadness.

I can relate to that.  I often miss Braden throughout the day, even if I'm running errands, gone for just a few hours, or if we're both at school and I don't see him during the day.  For those who don’t know me, I should preface this by sharing that I am both a mother and a teacher.  I am fortunate enough to be able to teach at the same school my son attends.  I don’t take that for granted and feel blessed each day that I have my son as close to me as I do, but even with that, I miss him.

What is your child’s understanding of love?  Is it about hearts and chocolates?  Or, more about feelings and actions?  Do you love someone because they help you with something, make you dinner, do your laundry, and read you stories; or do you love someone because they hold your hand, and give you hugs? More importantly, how do you teach a child to love?

Love, is both innate and learned.  It is both tangible and intangible.

I think most parents feel they show their child love by physical contact—with hugs and kisses and by the everyday tasks we do as parents.  We love our children unconditionally.  We provide for them, we nurture them, we give them what we can.

Yet this is just a small part of teaching children to love.

Love is also shown through example.  We can show our children how to love by the interactions we have with other people, and how genuinely and unselfishly we love others.

Having moved around for the better part of my adult life, I have friends scattered all over the world.  Some have been friends since childhood, others are more recent.  Some will span a lifetime, while others may be short-lived.  Whatever the impact, however the depth, each relationship is meaningful to me, providing me with not only what I need at that moment, but also allowing me to give of myself in return.  As Braden experiences these friendships through me, he can learn how to develop his own, and discover how he can make a difference in other people’s lives.

I believe this has a greater impact on they way children learn to love.  As they watch their parents interact in their world, they learn how to love and treat others.

It’s important to me for Braden to be respectful and loving to the people he comes in contact with every day.  This means eye contact, smiling, being polite, and saying hello.  Not only to the people we know, but to strangers as well. On a daily basis Braden can observe me holding the door open for the person behind me, letting someone cut in front of me in line, stopping to say good morning to the adjumas and adjushis at school, saying please and thank you when ordering a coffee, and greeting people with a smile.  It is my hope, that as he observes, he, too, learns to love in the same way.

It’s not enough to talk about love.  Nor is it enough to crowd love into pink boxes of chocolates, bouquets of red roses, and heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cards.  We have to teach children to become loving and caring human beings, and that should not be reserved for just one day of the year.