Children learn what love is by watching how their parents treat each other.
Children learn what love is through their parents’ love for them and by realizing that they are loved. But there’s another important way that they learn about love, and that’s “by seeing that their parents love each other, by witnessing it enough to be reassured about their love,” says Inès Pélissié du Rausas in her book Talking to Children About Love (Parlons d’amour à nos enfants). A bit like Doubting St. Thomas, “they only believe what they can see.”
How do children come to see that their parents love each other? By seeing their parents act in a way that expresses their mutual tenderness: seeing their father bring flowers or gifts to his wife, seeing their mother say a tender word to her husband, seeing them smiling at each other and hugging and kissing each other, or seeing them apologize and reconcile after an argument.
Inès Pélissié du Rausas, a specialist in emotional education, points out that this conjugal tenderness allows children to understand what love really is: “Children who see their parents show tenderness are lucky! They discover that loving someone means being close to them, helping them, thinking of them before thinking about yourself.”
Children indirectly experience the joy produced in the heart of the person who receives the kiss, the smile, or the tender gaze. “In this simple and discreet unveiling of their parents’ intimacy, children perceive that love is a gift from one person to another, a gift that is experienced through the body,” she says. Discovering that the body allows us to give love and joy freely touches on a deep and essential reality of love.
When jealousy rears its ugly head
Children need to feel that their parents love each other, but they don’t always like it, says Inès Pélissié du Rausas. We sometimes see children get in between their parents when they kiss each other. But she insists that children must accept that their parents need to be alone, whether it’s to go out for a romantic date, or to close the door of their room at night.
Parents should keep in mind that a child coming between their parents in affectionate moments is not always about jealousy. By huddling in with their parents when they kiss, “they seek the security of love, even if they aren’t aware of it. They too want to receive something of the joy they perceive intensely at that moment,” the author explains.
One thing to keep in mind is that only true tenderness attracts, not a false tenderness that is confused and equivocal, and which reveals a desire for possession of the other more than selfless care. Pope John Paul II in Love and Responsibility defined true tenderness, which comes from the heart:
“Tenderness must be surrounded by a certain vigilance … so that its various manifestations do not become a means of satisfying sensuality and sexual needs. Therefore, it cannot do without true self-control, which here reflects the measure of the subtlety and inner sensitivity of one’s attitude towards the person of the opposite sex.”
It is this tenderness that parents are called to express in front of their children. It is this tenderness, not greedy sensuality, that will educate children to know and recognize true love.