When the bank and local fast food joints hang hundreds of cutout hearts from the ceiling and you can’t watch a football game without being bombarded with jewelry commercials, you know it’s February. Valentine’s Day might seem like one more holiday that takes over store shelves with candy and demands your participation, but it’s also a great opportunity to talk to your kids about the most important value of them all: love.
From this one virtue stems countless others. When love flourishes, traits like patience, kindness, and gratefulness follow. Chances are, the word “love” is probably spoken in your home on a daily basis. But when was the last time you talked about the meaning of this simple word? It’s easy to think children must have an innate understanding of love. After all, you were speaking the words “I love you” to them long before they could say it back. However, it’s important that children understand that love is more than just something we say–it’s a way of life.
Explaining the Concept of “Love” to Children
Sure, most of us could say without hesitation that we know what love is. But how would you put it into words? Your definition of love will probably vary depending on who it’s directed at. For example, you might love your neighbor, Betty, and her delicious chocolate chip cookies, but that love is different from the love you have for your child. Even within the family, the love between parents and children is different from the love between spouses. This concept can be tricky for children to understand.
So, where do you begin?
First, try to help your child understand that “love” is different from “enjoy.” For example, they might say they “love” strawberry ice cream, but hopefully their feelings for strawberry ice cream are quite different from what they feel for their family members. Your child should understand that love as a virtue has nothing to do with personal preferences.
Explain to your child that at its core, loving others means desiring the best for them. You care about their wellbeing and safety. This applies across the board.
At our Christian private school in Atlanta, we use the Bible to help us define love. First Corinthians 13, often called the “love chapter,” paints a detailed picture of love in action: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, English Standard Version).
You can help your child remember what it means to love others by encouraging them to memorize verses like these. When they act in a way that is unloving towards someone else, recite the verses with them and talk about how they could better show love to those around them.
9 Practical Ways to Teach Your Child to Love Well
1. Model love in your home and relationships.
A child’s understanding of love comes from what they perceive and experience within their home. Just as it is important to encourage children to go above and beyond to show love to others, parents should strive for this, as well.
2. Discuss what it means to love others.
While the tips above are a great foundation for helping a child understand the concept of love, it’s so much more than a one-and-done discussion. Ask your child regularly what they think it means to love others. When an offense is made toward someone else, ask your child, “How could you have loved that person better?” When someone has wronged them, ask, “How could that person have treated you in a more loving manner?”
3. Read stories that paint a picture of love and friendship.
Helping kids read stories that feature valuable truths is an excellent way to impress those truths upon their hearts. Look for books that paint a vivid and accurate picture of love and friendship, then discuss the values found in the story when you’ve finished reading.
4. Put together a photo album.
Ask your child for a list of the people they love. Then, have photos of each person printed. Let your child pick out a photo album and fill it with pictures of their loved ones. While you fill the album, have your child explain what they love about each person.
5. Teach your child about love languages and discuss the things that make them feel loved.
You’ve probably heard of the Five Love Languages. People like to express and receive love in different ways. There’s Physical Touch, Acts of Service, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, and Words of Affirmation (Chapman, The 5 Love Languages). While it can sometimes take children a while to develop their “love language,” you can begin to consider and discuss the things that make them feel most loved. You can also tell them about your “love language,” so that they can begin to think about how other people might like to receive love.
6. Come up with little ways to say, “I love you.”
You can never express love too much. As a family, come up with creative ways that you can communicate love to one another apart from simply saying, “I love you.” This might include sweet sayings, like, “I love you to the moon.” When you’re holding hands, three squeezes can be a secret way of saying, “I love you.” And when you’re waving goodbye to your child at school drop-off, try using the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.”
7. Make a card to tell someone they’re loved.
Help your children learn to go out of their way to show love by making and mailing (or giving) “just because” cards to people they care about. Taking the time to do something that will make another person feel loved is a great way to help children begin to shape an others-minded mentality.
8. Play “Loving Charades.”
Give your child various scenarios and situations, and have them act out ways that they could show love in that situation. You might say, “Your friend fell and scraped her knee. How could you show her love at that moment?” Then, let your child act out how they would respond.
9. Love your community.
Finally, find ways to serve your community as a family, and discuss ways that you can love your community well. Oftentimes, love means putting others first. Serving in this way can help children learn to shift their focus from themselves to loving and caring for others.