Dr Richard C. Woolfson
In the 1970 film Love Story, the actor Ryan O’Neil coined the classic phrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But that is a highly romanticised explanation of love, which won’t mean much to a preschooler; after all, there are plenty of people who love one another, but whose vocabulary definitely includes the word “sorry.”
Not that there is a simple explanation of love – its definition has taxed philosophers for thousands of years, so you can hardly expect to solve it yourself. But if your child asks you what love means, you should have a go at providing a satisfactory answer.
When trying to explain the meaning of “love” to him, start off by telling him that a lot depends on who is involved. For instance, the love between a parent and child is different in some ways from the love between a mum and dad or between a brother and sister, although a common theme of care and concern runs through them all.
Begin your explanation by focusing on your child’s core relationship – that is, the one he has with you. Explain that when you say you love him, what you mean is that he matters as much as he possibly can to you, that you want the best for him, and that you’ll do anything to help him and keep him safe. Use words he can understand and you are comfortable with.
Give practical examples to demonstrate the meaning of your love for him. You could refer to the fun you have when you spend time with him, how hard you and your partner work in order to provide for him, or how you care for him when he is unwell. Ask your child to think of some examples for himself. Make sure that you also talk about how he loves you. Point out how his behaviour towards you and the feelings he has for you confirm that the love in your relationship is two-way.
At this age, it would probably be best to avoid complicated, in-depth discussions about the love between mums and dads. Simply say that they care for each other in the same way that you have explained how you care for him. You’ll find that he absorbs ideas from this chat at the level of his maturity and understanding, so don’t confuse him with too much information.
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He may be puzzled when he thinks about sibling love, because unlike his relationship with you, he probably finds his younger sister quite annoying and irritating a lot of the time, and he probably doesn’t do things for her the way you do things for him.
It would be helpful to explain that sibling love is a little different. For example, you could say that although his day-to-day relationship with his sister may not be as close as it is between you and him, he doesn’t want her to come to any harm and he does want her to be happy. In other words, he fundamentally loves her even though they bicker occasionally. Use practical examples to illustrate.
COPING WITH TENSION
During any chat about the subject of love with your child, make sure you raise the idea that it is perfectly possible to love someone and yet be annoyed with him at the same time. In other words, explain that love is enduring and long-lasting irrespective of occasional fights and disagreements.
Your preschool child has an innate psychological need to be loved, and he may be afraid that when you are angry with him, you stop loving him. Clarify this so he understands your love for him is unconditional and does not depend on his good behaviour. Tell him that you love him for who he is, and not for what he does.
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