Our youngest child is named Charity. We liked the sound of the word as well as its definition of “pure love.” A few weeks before her first birthday we were trying to generate a discussion of love with our older children around the dinner table. What is love? What causes us to feel it for others? And why are some people so much easier to feel it for than others?
Hard questions, especially for children. No — maybe especially hard for adults and easier for children. The discussion went beyond what we had hoped. We found ourselves learning instead of teaching. We talked about love meaning caring and about how we love those who love us and do things for us. Then our eleven-year-old daughter brought up the illustration of baby Charity. “She doesn’t do things for us, we do everything for her, and just think how much we all love Charity!”
“Well, she does love us,” said the seven-year-old, “you can tell that by how she looks at you.”
“And she never tells you to be different,” said our nine-year-old son, “she just seems to like you no matter what.”
What are the messages?
First we learn to love by being loved unconditionally.
The principle: We may not always love those who serve us. Their love, depending on how it is given, can spoil us, or intimidate us, or even antagonize us. But unconditional, understanding, fully accepting love warms us without reservation and brings about our reciprocal love. And while we may not necessarily love those who serve us, we will love those whom we serve.
Thus, all of the methods for teaching this value boil down to giving children unconditional love and giving them opportunities to serve.
Develop a Service Orientation. You and your children can learn collectively to love through serving. Any kind of service project is a “petri dish” for growing love. Look for charitable services that can be rendered as a family and that can involve your children. These can range from “Sub-for-Santa” charity programs at Christmas time to clean-up, fix-up projects in summer to helping needy people at any time of the year.
Provide and Allow for Apology and “Repentance.” This helps show children that you place love and improvement over punishment and penalty. Too often, well-meaning parents adopt an almost Gestapo-like mentality of “justice” and retribution. “Break a law, get a punishment.”
Love is better taught in settings where “repentance” or restitution is an alternative to punishment.
Teach children that when they make a mistake, or lose their temper, or break a family law, they can often avoid a punishment if they apologize, make restitution, and promise not to “do it again.” For smaller children use the “repenting bench” mentioned earlier. When two children fight or argue, sit them on the bench and tell them that the only way to get off the bench is to say what they (not the other guy) did wrong, to apologize (including a hug), and to promise not to do it again. Help them to see that whenever there is a fight or argument, both parties have done something (“it takes two to tangle”).
Praise them and show pride for any “repenting” they do. The whole process can add to the love that is expressed and felt in your home.
Clearly Separate Dissatisfaction with Behavior from Love of Child. Assure and reassure your children of your unconditional love for them. At every instance of discipline or corrections reiterate that it is what the child did that you do not like and that your love for the child cannot be altered by anything. Mention this frequently to children of all ages and back it up with a hug and physical affection. Say, “James, I was really upset when you were two hours late getting home from school and didn’t call me, and you deserve the penalty you’re getting, but I want to remind you that it’s what you did that I’m not so wild about. I still love you as much as ever. I always do and always will!”
Sample Method for Preschoolers: “Secret Services”
This can help young children taste the delight of anonymous giving. With your little ones, decide on something you can do for someone anonymously. It may be baking cookies and leaving a little basket of them on Daddy’s pillow or on the bed of an older brother or sister. It may be leaving a bowl of fruit on the doorstep of an elderly neighbor or sending a grandparent a new pair of slippers with no return address on the package.
Sample Method for Elementary Age: “Show Physical Love”
Show your love openly and teach your children that overt affection and love is okay. Give hugs. Children need to feel their parents’ physical love as much during their elementary-school-age years as they do as preschoolers. Whether it is as your child goes off to school, just before he pops into bed, or, as we do at our house, just after family prayer, a sincere hug is appreciated by everyone, even teenagers, whether they will openly admit it or not. Be sure to tell children verbally that you love them as well as providing hugs. A quick “love you” as they dash off with their friends will give them added security.
Sample Method for Adolescents: “Look for Special Needs”
It’s important to teach adolescent-age children to look for those who need help.
One father taught awareness and love for others by asking his son every day, when he came home from school, “Son, did you help anyone today?” At first the son looked back at him blankly and said, “Well, no.” The father just smiled and changed the subject. After being asked the same question and giving the same answer about twenty days in a row, one day the son finally said, “Yes!” and told how he had noticed a handicapped boy and helped him get to class.
As parents we need to let our children know that it is important to us that they learn to love others by looking for opportunities to help. As always, example is the best teacher and we need to share our own personal efforts to give help or service.