Patrick Coleman is Fatherly’s Parenting Editor, father of two young boys, and author of the forthcoming ‘Fatherhood,’ for which he’s interviewed, by his estimate, 254 experts in varying fields of child development.
My 9-year-old son has a crush on a girl. She is a year younger than him and she goes to a different school — a Catholic school he attended last year. He hasn’t seen this girl in months but, as if to prove the poets right, his fondness has only grown. He’s even gone so far as calling her mother to set up a Zoom date (he was relegated to voicemail). He says he dreams about her. He talks endlessly about the things they have in common (a love of dragons, mostly) and during one recent morning commute told his mother and I that he hopes they get married.
The kid’s got it bad: Big, wooly, heart-on-the-sleeve puppy love. It’s the best.
By the time we have kids, the way we experience love has changed dramatically from the heart-pulsing and sometimes crushing experiences of pre-pubescence and adolescence. For one, we have a much more sophisticated understanding of what it means to love someone. We know it isn’t the same as attraction. We know that love requires selflessness and its value lies more in giving it away than receiving it from others. And while a mutual appreciation of dragons is a good start, it’s nothing to build a life on.
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The complication for parents comes in trying to explain all this to their kids. Because real love is different from the saccharine fantasies doled out by Disney films and Valentine’s Day cards. Ralph might let Lisa Simpson know he “Choo-choo-chooses” her, but his heart will be crushed regardless.
And that’s the burden for parents. How do you help kids understand love without caging their exuberant puppy hearts? How do you prepare them for a life filled with crushes, flings, promising romances, heartbreaks, and, hopefully, true loves without turning them into tiny cynics?
There are a couple of strategies. But what you choose depends on who you and your kid happen to be.
One of the best scientific papers I’ve ever read on the subject of love has this delightfully dry definition:“Love is an emergent property of an ancient cocktail of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters.”
Which is all to say that love is not an emotion as much as it’s the result of a complicated interplay of hormones meant to keep humans bonded. Study author Krishna G. Seshadri makes a strong argument that love is an adaptive mammalian trait meant to make it easier to raise young. Essentially, Seshadri argues, human brains and bodies have evolved chemical pathways so that we bond and stay bonded for the continuation of our species.
But love as a biological process is not an easy ride. And it’s one we might take multiple times in our life.
Weirdly, love seems to start with stress. In the earliest stages of romantic relationships, men and women are flooded with cortisol and norepinephrine. There seems to be some good reason for this. Cortisol, as a stress hormone, causes humans to be more alert which might help overcome some fear of a new relationship. Norepinephrine also boosts alertness and contributes to an increase in energy, along with symptoms of lovesickness including loss of appetite, sleeplessness, racing heart, and sweats.
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As unpleasant as all of those hormonal responses can be, they are regulated by the next big players in the game of love: oxytocin.
Oxytocin is associated with feelings of bonding and closeness. It increases body temperature, moderates feelings of anxiety and depression, promotes protective emotions and causes drowsiness. It increases after the stress of early relationship stages and might reinforce the notion that bonding is good by relieving some of the pain of falling in love.
As far as love is concerned our first experience comes courtesy of oxytocin. After birth contact with parents flood newborn babies with oxytocin. Skin to skin contact is particularly good for oxytocin release and breastfeeding causes the release of the hormone in mothers. And while moms get the biggest oxytocin boost, dads get the benefit of the hormones too, particularly when caring for their baby.
Touch is important for the release of oxytocin, but it’s also released after eating chocolate, which may account for the latter’s association with love and its ubiquity as a Valentine’s Day treat.
Is any of this good for kids to know? Well, a child in the painful throes of a crush will probably be happy to know that there’s nothing wrong with them. Their body is doing what their body does. There’s some comfort in that. There’s also comfort in knowing that we are primed for love. And while it’s a biological imperative, we have the luxury of a rational mind. We can still choose our path.
The neuroendocrinology love story is a story of mindfulness too. When we know what’s happening to our bodies we can pay attention. We can feel and name the big emotions without fear. We can lose love and know that we will surely love again.
Psychologist Albert Bandura is responsible for the notion that we learn how to be human by observing human behavior. The notion makes sense if you think about it. If we had to learn every social norm from scratch — through trial and error — we would probably still be living in trees. It’s crucial to be able to learn how to behave via observation. It’s far more efficient to watch and copy than learn through explicit instruction.
Bandura found this to be true with violence through his now-famous Bobo Doll study. In his experiment, children were exposed to an adult model who would either ignore or beat the crap out of and verbally assault an inflatable clown-faced Bobo Doll. Bandura found that children who were exposed to the adults’ violent interaction with the Bobo Doll were more likely to mimic the behavior when left alone with the doll to play. Moreover, they were more likely to display novel aggressive behavior to other toys.
But social learning theory isn’t just for negative behaviors. It’s for positive behaviors too. A study published last year by researchers from the University of Michigan and McGill University in Quebec found that children who lived with parents that were affectionate to one another had better outcomes.
The study took place in Nepal with families who have responded to the Chitwan Valley Family survey since 1995. At the start of the study, spouses were asked separately (but simultaneously) about their feelings of love for their partner. Follow-ups were then conducted with their children decades later.
Researchers found that couples who said they loved each other “very much” were more likely to have children who stayed in school and married later in life. Both of those qualities are indicative of social health in Nepal. Higher education means better prospects and holding off on nuptials indicates adolescents aren’t fleeing home for young marriages.
Researchers believe that the results indicate that being exposed to love makes children happier and healthier, not just because their homes are more secure, but because they are exposed to warmth and good feelings. So, when parents show love to each other, not just to their children, the children benefit.
It could be that teaching children about love and what it means may simply be a matter of loving your partner in front of them. Yes, that means signs of affection that might cause some kids to roll their eyes, but it also means the work of love. It means showing communication and compromise during conflicts. It means showing empathy and understanding and acting selflessly for the well-being of another.
When we as parents love each other, it fills our homes to the brim. Our children grow up suffused with that love. They learn how to love and what love means beyond the first flirtations and heart palpitations.
For parents who may not be good at talking, or who lean towards showing instead of telling. Loving your partner could be as good, if not better, than a lecture on love.
Whatever way we choose to teach our kids about love we need to celebrate the love they are stumbling towards in their own sloppy, wonderful, ridiculous way. The way kids love is a sight to behold. And we’d be lucky if we could remember to love so effortlessly.
But by giving our kids an understanding of where love comes from and showing them how love works in our families, we can help our children love better. And more people loving better would be a very good thing for this world.