With all the mystery surrounding the legends of the history of Valentine’s Day, it is intriguing how we have come to highlight the month of February with the theme of love. And although this month is saturated with red hearts, chocolate, flowers, and cupid, we have a human need to fill every day of our lives with love. A thirteen-year-old girl with a crush, a college boy writing a love letter to his long distance girlfriend, and a middle-aged couple celebrating thirty years of marriage exemplify how love transcends age, space, and time. I was only six years old when I found my heart feeling a secret special liking for a brown-eyed boy in my first grade class. Since then, love has become more complex, complicated, and messy. However, if I bring myself back to the little girl I used to be or look through the eyes of my preschoolers, I find that I can disentangle the sticky webs I have spun and unveil the simplicity of love.
Philosophers and psychologists and poets alike have filled centuries with the study and dissecting of the meaning of love. As adults we learn there are infinite kinds and immeasurable depths of love. It is the endless possibilities of defining love that perhaps make it so abstruse. And perhaps, it is the naivety and innocence of children, their limited experience of life that allow them to define love with such simplicity.
My curiosity leads me to raise the questions What is love? And how do you show someone you love them? to my preschoolers. Although some of these four-year-olds respond with a shrug of their shoulders and a quiet I don’t know, their responses are humorously innocent and beautifully simple. “You love everybody!” Davey exclaims with such an enthusiastic smile, his small, round hands raised high above his head. “Mommy and Daddy hug and kiss me a lot,” Brianna says of how her parents show her love. Taylor’s hand lightly thumps against his chest as he says, “I know Dad loves me in the heart.” As I sit in a little yellow chair leaning forward with my elbows resting against my legs, my chin propped up between my hands, I ask Annabelle, “What does love mean?” At the coloring table, she pauses; a purple crayon pinched between her fingers is suspended in the space above a picture of a fairy. Her round freckled cheeks plump upward as her pink little lips curl into a smile. “It means I love you very much by doing this!”
Before all the words burst from her mouth, she nearly knocks me over as she jumps at me with open arms and wraps her arms tightly around me. I squeeze her in return as I warmly embrace her hug.
Annabelle returns to the coloring table across from Madison. Madison’s big blue eyes have been watching Annabelle and me the whole time. “And how do you show someone you love them, Madison?” I ask. In her tiny sweet voice she says, “I gave Daddy a big kiss before I brushed my teeth in the morning.” Instantly I laugh and tell her maybe Daddy would have liked a kiss after she brushed her teeth. “Daddy likes kisses anytime,” she says.
Most of my preschoolers’ comprehension of love comes from their interactions with their parents or guardians, but their awareness and conception of love expands with their interactions with their teachers and peers within the classroom. Even if these children have not yet learned enough words and the meaning of those words to describe what love is, they certainly are able to show what love is through their actions. Hugs and kisses seem to be the most common way children learn to understand and express love so simply without any words. We make and teach positive associations with these actions, and in turn, children learn to connect kind gestures and actions in general with different forms of love. Twirling her finger around one of her dark braids, Kyra reflects this very connection when she tells me, “Love means when you say nice words to your friends like ‘I forgive you’ and ‘thank-you,’ and you share your toys with your friends to be nice.” Although they might not call these actions love, my preschoolers know that using kind words and actions are positive ways to show each other friendship, and to me friendship is an underlying element in defining love in a relationship.
Returning for our wrap-around daycare in the afternoons, Lily, a kindergarten student, has only one year more of life experience and maturity than my preschoolers. Even with a bit more exposure to life, she still is untouched by the intense complexity of love. When I ask her the same questions, “What is love? And, how do you show someone you love them?” she says, “It’s kind to do something like when we go to the store to get someone a present when it’s not even their birthday or Christmas. And that’s all I know about love.”
Lindsey Staples, a teacher’s assistant for the UPK program at Heritage House Childcare and Learning Center, earned a B.A. degree in English/Creative Writing from Keuka College in May of 2009.