We teach our kids the things they need to know.
To be thankful. To be responsible. To be polite.
We teach them about family and kindness and honesty.
But sometimes we forget to teach them about love.
They love so naturally! They love like they were born to it. They don’t really need our help, do they?
From my perspective, as someone deeply invested in healthy adult relationships, there’s nothing more important than teaching our kids how to love.
What we teach them as children bears fruit in their romantic relationships.
In fact, many of the problems grown-ups experience in relationships date back to those early lessons in love.
Our parents taught us the WRONG stuff.
Not consciously, of course! Most of the time, our parents weren’t aware they were teaching us anything of the kind.
Their job was to raise children who could make it in life. That meant teaching us the skills to get and keep a job, maintain a household, and fit into society.
But they were ALSO teaching us how it felt to be loved.
They were teaching us what love asks from us, what love says, and how love behaves.
We took this understanding of love with us into the world, where we applied it to our early relationships.
And if those relationships failed, we blamed ourselves. Not what we’d learned about love.
In a minute I’ll share with you the 3 love lessons every child should learn, but first I’d like to share a few stories that demonstrate how high the stakes are. These stories break my heart. Maybe you know some stories like them.
A single dad raises his daughter like a princess. Her happiness comes first.
He expects nothing of her. She doesn’t have to lift a finger around the house or spend time with grandparents or write thank you letters unless she wants to—which she doesn’t.
He believes he’s raising a girl with standards. She won’t settle for anything less than a man who treats her like dear old Dad.
Instead, he ends up with a young woman who chooses boyfriends she can dominate. She uses people. It’s all about what she can get, not what she can give.
She doesn’t know how to love. She never learned.
The Unloved Son
A mother raises her son to feel inadequate.
She makes fun of him, teases him, and compares him unfavorably to his perfect sister. His sister is the one who gets all the compliments. His sister is the one who succeeds at everything.
All he wants is for his mother to look at him. He wants her attention so badly. He cracks stupid jokes, boasts about what he did at school, and does everything but handstands to win her approval. Which she never, ever gives.
At the age of 18, he ends up having an affair with a married woman who treats him like her toy boy. His new girlfriend uses him for sex. She doesn’t respect him.
He thinks that’s love.
3 Love Lessons You Should Be Teaching Your Kids
If you don’t consciously teach your kids about love, they’ll soak it up unconsciously from the environment around them.
And you’ll have lost your opportunity to shape their understanding in healthy ways.
It’s incredibly hard to see what we’re actually teaching our children when we’re in the thick of parenting.
We’re doing the best we can. We’re making it day by day. We’re not experts.
But we can make a commitment to talk to our kids about love.
To discuss our beliefs about love, why we value love, how we practice love.
To get you started, here are 3 lessons about love that can help your child grow into healthy relationships.
Love Lesson #1.
Love is not a feeling, a duty, or three little words. Love is how you act.
It’s wonderful to see families who genuinely enjoy one another.
It’s wonderful to see families who expect their children to have strong relationships with siblings, grandparents, and relatives.
It’s wonderful to see families who say, “I love you,” to each other.
But none of those things is enough.
Love needs to be bigger than feelings. Bigger than duty. Bigger than words.
It needs to be an ethic.
A principle that guides your behavior even when you’re not feeling it.
Reward children for behaving in loving ways. That includes saying thank you, remembering birthdays, giving compliments, spending time together, offering a hug, sharing what you treasure, asking about each other’s day.
If they don’t want to say, “I love you,” that’s okay. As long as you see from their behavior that they’re demonstrating care, concern and affection for those they love.
Love Lesson #2.
You need love most when you don’t like someone very much.
The way we teach children about love has a problem. It’s all warm, fuzzy, and tender-hearted.
It’s all hearts and rainbows and cupcakes and kittens.
And real love isn’t cute.
Real love is raw and stormy and resilient. It reveals itself right at the moment when connection is threatened.
It’s easy to love your sister, for example, when she’s just given you a present. It’s not so easy to love your sister when she won’t share something you desperately want.
We need love most when we’re not feeling loving. When we’re mad, frustrated, or tested beyond our limits.
Love is what brings us back together again. It keeps us from saying or doing that thing we’ll regret. It reminds us that nothing is worth losing each other.
Love Lesson #3.
It’s not love if there isn’t respect.
And that respect HAS to go both ways.
Teaching children what love doesn’t look like is as important as teaching them what it does look like.
There will be people in their life who claim to love them but don’t. Your kids need to be able to spot them.
It can be a hard lesson to teach. After all, everyone wants to be loved. We don’t question it when someone says how much they like us or how much they want to be our friend.
Kids take affection wherever it’s given. You don’t want them to become cynical, but you DO want them to choose their friends wisely.
That’s why teaching the relationship between love and respect is so important.
If someone doesn’t treat you with respect, it’s fair to say that what they feel for you probably isn’t real love.
They may think it’s love, they may call it love, but it isn’t the genuine article.
And you want your kids to be able to recognize the genuine article. Especially given that 1 in 3 young people end up in toxic or abusive relationships.
There are so many other lessons you could teach about love. What do you think are the most important things a child needs to know, and what are the best ways to teach them? Share your parenting strategies with us in the comments.