This is easy: it’s something about Hugh Grant.
Just kidding. I don’t really think it’s Hugh Grant, but at the same time I’m not sure I have the ability to help children understand the answer to that question – at least as it relates to big people being in true love. It’s a subject I’ve been mulling over for the better part of a year, and it brings up an even scarier set of questions all related to this one:
Can children really understand what love is in the absence of good examples?
Of all the things I have mourned as part of the divorce process, the thing I have mourned more than all else combined is the impact on my girls. Adults are big people and equipped to survive crappy things. Strong people pick themselves up, take time to address what’s broken, and move forward. But children don’t have all the coping skills and life perspective to rely on when crappy things happen. They mainly rely on adults to guide them, and relying on the guidance of divorced parents is OK in terms of learning how to get back on a bike after a fall or advice about a bad grade. But can children understand what love is when surrounded by adults who don’t display love properly, or at all?
My gut reaction: oh, heck no.
But that’s absolutely incorrect, and I am certain of it not because of what I’ve read or because of what a psychologist says or because of the encouragement of people who mean well but will tell me what I want to hear to make me feel better momentarily. I am certain of it because of a conversation with my daughter.
Just a few months into our family changes I was a bit horrified to find that my girls were talking to me about me dating. Not only was that not at all the space I was in, I didn’t want them to think that you always need to have a person in your life or you just replace one person with another. So I focused our discussions toward a couple of key things:
1. People do not need a partner to have a wonderful life.
2. There’s no reason to fear being alone. You don’t find real happiness in others and you don’t date or marry someone to feel whole – you can and should be whole all by yourself.
What I didn’t realize until I talked to a helper is that the girls were really just conveying they wanted me to be happy. That they thought if I fell in love I would be happy. And that’s sweet, but it’s also scary because I want my girls to not equate happiness with other people. I want them to love themselves and know God loves them and feel so loved and secure all on their own that they never feel they must have a partner – yet they will embrace one if they find and want one. But how could they know what love really is when all they’ve witnessed close up is a relationship that ended in an unexpected virtual propane explosion and then a relationship between two people who were/are not faithful in their marriages.
How could the girls possibly know, and how could they possibly learn, what love really is? How could I even begin to teach them?
My first thought was I could point out examples of good people they know who’ve gotten it right. Of course no two people are perfect and no marriage is all about a sweet love story, but I found myself saying “You see them? They work hard at it and are dedicated to each other and they got it right.” But that didn’t seem like enough. What if that relationship ended up not working out? What if a year from now one of those seemingly good people that everyone thinks is such a devoted spouse and successful human turns out to secretly be someone else entirely? It wasn’t going to be enough to show them good examples.
My second idea was to point out what love isn’t. This could be a really seriously long list – but boiled down, it’s actually pretty simple: if shame or dishonor is in any way a component of a relationship, that’s not love. If you feel any shame about the person standing next to you, that’s not love. If you’re with someone who has dishonored or mistreated you or you’ve dishonored or mistreated them, that’s not love.
Next was talking about the words “I love you.” Plenty of adult people are in relationships and say “I love you,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they even know what love is. It might just mean they know how to speak words – maybe they love the idea of love or the idea of love with someone specifically, but they could have no idea how to actually love properly. Anyone who says “I love you” but dishonors you when you’re not around does not love you – they are lying to you or themself or both. Anyone who says “I love you” but dishonors your children does not understand what love really is. Love is always going to be a good bit about faith and trust and selflessness and respect – lack of faith or trust or selflessness or respect smells like like or convenience, not love. Don’t just say words: say words only when you are sure what they mean and you actually mean them.
Step four in this process was to say and actually mean that I believe in love. Because if I don’t believe in love, how can I really expect my children to have healthy views and feelings about love? Step four took some time, but I got there. And the moment I realized I still believe in love was coincidentally the moment when my daughter spoke words that showed me she knows some of what love is really all about.
We were sitting in church, and a few pews in front of us were A+K. And my daughter leaned over and whispered to me, “Did you see him put his arm around her? You need that.” I gave her side eye – I’m fine by myself, thank you. Mom, you need to be with someone who will go to church with us. And I realized in our discussions about it she saw so much more than just a warm body with an arm to lean against. It was two people with shared values, two people who work together to meet commitments, two people who prioritize family, two people who support one another, two people whose lives have not always been easy, two people who are not perfect, two people who worship together, two people who clearly love and are proud of each other.
The girls can understand and experience love regardless of their parents’ examples. I had forgotten for a while that the girls have the perfect example of true love and they’ve been learning about it since they were babies right in that very building with the pews. We – me, you, them – are so loved that we were given clear instructions for love and a clear definition of love that we can always use as a benchmark whenever we’re confused.
1 Corinthians 13 New Life Version (NLV)
4 Love does not give up. Love is kind. Love is not jealous. Love does not put itself up as being important. Love has no pride.
5 Love does not do the wrong thing. Love never thinks of itself. Love does not get angry. Love does not remember the suffering that comes from being hurt by someone.
6 Love is not happy with sin. Love is happy with the truth.
7 Love takes everything that comes without giving up. Love believes all things. Love hopes for all things. Love keeps on in all things.
8 Love never comes to an end.
One of my favorite movies is Love Actually. I’ve watched it a ridiculous number of times over the years, mostly because Hugh Grant is bloody swoonworthy. Little Sam has always been my favorite. He’s so sad and grumpy and so forlorn and so scared and yet still a bit hopeful. And he’s young and had so much tragedy that you really, really want his first love to work out – more than any of the other story lines, you want Sam’s to have a sweet and happy ending. For the first time, in a recent re-viewing, I realized that Sam has a parent who is somewhat like me – a parent who wants his child to believe in love and to take the risk, because ultimately it’s so worth it.
Watch: Sam has a problem.
Watch: Sam has a plan.
Watch: Sam gets his kiss.
Love Actually is a group of relationship stories, some about love and some not. Just like the stories of people in all of our lives. In different viewings at different times, I always seem to focus on a different line as THE most interesting one. My viewings the last year or so had me focusing on Karen, who warned her husband about that woman at the office. But when I caught it midway recently, flipping channels, I remembered how much I rooted for Sam the first time I watched the film. His story has always been my favorite. I love this line specifically, which you should be able to say with pride in some variation at decade one and decade two and decade five about the person you love to the other people in your life that you love: “She’s the coolest girl (guy) in school.” Actual love grows and gets better with age.