What do we tell kids about love?

‘What’s Valentine’s Day about?’ I ask my son, aged 10.

‘It’s about remembering your loved ones and what they mean to you,’ he says.

I look impressed.

‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘I can be deep. Oh and sometimes you get chocolate.’

When he talks about loved ones, he means his mom, dad and brother. He hasn’t yet internalised the mythology of romantic love, although it can’t be long, what with every Disney movie – even Shrek – ending with the fairytale couple finding eternal love.

Every fairytale has a romance, and it usually ends in marriage. But children know from their own experience, and those of their classmates, that marriages often break up. They are used to a landscape scattered with the wreckage of relationships that didn’t make it anywhere near ever after.

So they know that love ends.

Even simply teaching children that love is two people coming together to share their lives is fraught with tricky questions, living in a country where our president says he loves each of his three wives equally.

But does that make the love between a couple less magical?

If we let them see romantic love through our cynical adult eyes, are we doing them a favour – or robbing them of something that helps lift us humans into something sublime, if only for a while?

No, I don’t want them to get their only image of love from an unrealistic Hollywood-sanitised myth, but nor do I want them to believe that it’s nothing more than the partner-hopping chaos of an episode of Gossip Girl.

Love exists. I have felt it, lost it, nurtured it. I have watched my parents take their love, born on the school playground, all the way to death did them part.

I will tell my sons that there is love. It may not last forever. There’s potentially more than one person for each person in a lifetime. The fairytales may usually have a prince and a princess, but sometimes there are two princes or two princesses who love each other, and that’s beautiful too.

I’ll tell them that love grows and changes, and that’s okay. The key is to find someone who can ride the ups and downs with you, not just gallop off into the sunset at the first sign of trouble.

Most of all, I’ll tell them that I will love them every day and forever. No matter who else they love too. And I will hope that they one day find partners to love who deserve them, and who will love them back.

What should children be told about romantic love?

Read more by Adele Hamilton
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