What is love? Easy: if you’re Haddaway, the answer is baby don’t hurt me. If you’re Shakespeare it’s a smoke made with the fume of sighs, and also blind, and like a child, and looks with the mind, and is a madness most discreet, and that it’s too young to know what conscience is, and that if music is the food of it, then play on! Okay, so maybe it’s not so easy after all.
But it’s a question that will inevitably spill from the mouth of a curious child so, no matter how difficult, it’s worth trying to explain Because, to a child, “I love you” is one of the most common phrases they hear and say. And it’s good to know what the things you say and hear mean, even if said things have an assumed meaning and concept that people have been trying to explain since loud grunts were our preferred method of speaking. Here’s some advice on how to describe love, sweet love, in a way that your kids will understand.
1. Keep It Simple
As is the case with explaining anything to a child, simplicity reigns supreme. “The key is to use words and concrete examples they can understand and to recognize that the child’s model for love is how you treat them,” explains Scott Carroll, a child psychiatrist and physician. Start with what your child knows best: you. “Love is when you really care about someone or something,” Carroll suggests as an opener, “so you try very hard to take care of them and keep them safe, just like how mommy and daddy take care of you and keep you safe.”
Adam Grant, an author, organizational psychologist, and father of three, echoes Carroll’s advice. “I’d say love is caring as much about someone as you do about yourself,” he suggests. “It means you want the best for them and will make sacrifices for them.”
Particularly savvy youngsters might try to poke holes in your explanation — a great opportunity to explain why love doesn’t always make sense right away. “Children often respond with: why don’t you let them do what they want like eat chocolate for dinner, if you love them?” Carroll says. “You have to use simple explanations like ‘It would make you sick if you ate too much chocolate and you wouldn’t be healthy and grow.’” He cautions parents against telling their children anything such answers as, “it would make you fat,” as this could lead to unhealthy relationships with food.
2. Suit the Action to the Word
“With little kids, it’s really helpful to try to help them experience what you’re talking about,” offers Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, a family therapist, author, and former Vice President, Health and Wellness at Prudential Financial. That means linking your explanation to real, physical experiences. “Give your child a hug and ask, ‘How do you feel right now?’” he recommends. “They may say they feel about feeling good or happy inside. You can tell them that those are some of the special feelings that we have when we feel loved and when we love other people.”
Love isn’t just a feeling, of course. It’s the way people behave towards each other every day — something you should be sure to include in your explanation. “Go on to say, ‘Love is also all the things we do to show how much we care about one another,’” Dolan-Del Vecchio says. “‘When I gave you that big hug, I was doing something to show you how much I love you. When I surprise your mom by making dinner or putting the laundry away when it’s not my turn to do these things, those are some of the little things I do to show mom how much I love her.’” This definition starts to show some of love’s complexities: sometimes it means doing things you’d rather not do, but love makes them worthwhile.
“One concern of children about love is that there is a limited supply, and therefore that someone else — their sibling, usually — might get more than they do,” warns Elisabeth Stitt, a parenting coach. She recommends parents ease this fear with a practical demonstration. “An excellent exercise for explaining to kids that love is boundless is using the analogy of a candle flame, which burns brightly… even after it has been used to light another candle—and another, and another, and another,” she says—just make sure you use big enough candles that they don’t burn down during the exercise.
Steve Scafidi, a poet and cabinetmaker, also emphasizes the importance of the show-don’t-tell approach. “My children, when very young, cared little for explanation and care even less now as preteens,” he says. “When words were abstract or divorced from physical reality, from the sensual life of every day, they stopped listening.” He suggests a simple approach that finds love even in the mundane: “I would say love is just sitting here with you and listening to you and that love is also making the sandwich you like and being sure you are warm. If I had to explain love to a child I would just brush the hair from her eyes and sit with her.”
3. Use Pets as an Example
Your job gets considerably easier if you have pets in the home. A beloved dog or cat can help demonstrate to your child that they already know what love is, because they exhibit it every day. “This is also a great time to acknowledge your child’s loving behavior toward those more vulnerable than they are,” Dolan-Del Vecchio says, suggesting something like: “‘When you pick up Kitty so carefully and then pet him very gently, you are showing him how much you love him.’”
Pets can also make it easier for your child to understand some of the thornier aspects of love. “We can use our puppy as an example of how we don’t let the puppy have everything she wants—like chewing plastic, running into the street and eating chocolate — because she doesn’t understand it could hurt her,” Carroll explains. “The puppy has been very useful for teaching our daughter how you have to say no because you love them. The puppy is also good for teaching social skills and how to be kind, because our daughter is an only child.”
4. Embrace the Mystery
At its core, love is mostly unexplainable (see: Shakespeare, Haddaway), and you don’t need to pretend it isn’t. Will Eno, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright, says he’d tell his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter that you know it when you feel it.
“Without wanting to sound like a stupid t-shirt, and failing,” he says, “I’d say that little kids are love, and they approach everything with love, and you hope that love — in the low, humming, constant form of energy, curiosity, gentleness, wariness, openness, and all kinds of other words — is somehow at the center and in support of all their interactions, both with the world and with their own inner life. There are indefinable things in the world that thousands of years of philosophy have not cracked, and that’s fine.”
“I remember one very short sentence from a kind of hippy-ish book about child-rearing, which said something like, ‘In the beginning your child will feel a sense of oneness and continuity with the Universe, so don’t be in such a rush to teach her all the words — fork, eyeglasses, etc,’” Eno recalls. “And that stuck with me in a complete way. We go slow and try to ask questions. I’ve met a lot of human beings and many seemed separated from that sense of one-ness, but not one of them didn’t know what a fork was called.”
Scafidi echoes this approach: suggesting to your child that deep down, they already know what love is. “If [my daughter] asked it, I would praise her and let her tell me the answer,” he says. “She probably has good words for it. Listening would be the love.”