What does a musical theater production have to do with love?

Well, I was about seven years old, and it was the setting for one of my earliest memories of my parents as a couple. In other words, it had dawned on me for the first time (at least consciously) that they had a relationship with each other and weren’t just my mom and my dad.

My mom was debating taking a first-time role as a director of our local theater company’s next play. She had trepidation about her ability to do it, as well as the time commitment she faced in addition to her full-time job as a high school science teacher. I remember so clearly my dad’s matter-of-fact response: 

“It’s important to you. You do it. We’ll figure it out.”

Kids are Incredible Observers

I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but this scene represented a defining characteristic of their relationship. Therefore, it shaped the very idea of what a loving relationship between two partners could be in my young mind. In this case, I learned the value of supporting each other to grow and dream big, to never back down from new challenges. 

Kids are constantly observing the world around them. They miss very little. What they witness as they come onto life’s stage is a play already in progress. They are thrust onto the scene, into the spotlight of life without being told what their role is, or what their lines are. Without any rehearsal, they must parse it out through observation and practice, all as the play goes on. They check out who else is on the stage. They sense the mood of the other actors and the tone of the scene before them. They notice what roles are already taken. They determine how each player fits into the scene, while also discovering ways they can uniquely contribute to it. All this, while also drawing conclusions about life, love, family, achievement, success, values, opportunities…you name it. 

How Kids Learn About Love

Whether we are raising our children in a two-parent household, working as co-parents through separation, or one of the myriad other ways that families exist – as the adults, we are the first and most influential models for our children in the realm of Love and Intimacy. And how they learn is through their observations.

Rudolf Dreikurs, a psychiatrist and educator who developed pragmatic methods for understanding behavior in children in the 1980s said, “Children are excellent observers, but poor interpreters.” In other words, while a child’s observation skills are keen, their growing minds aren’t equipped to always come up with the most accurate interpretations of what they are seeing. Children often make the mistake of assigning blame to themselves for the things that happen around them. (For example: My goldfish must have died of loneliness because I left him to go to school.)

When it comes to forming their ideas about love, partnership, marriage, and intimacy, this is especially true. Why? Because intimate relationships are for and between adults. Therefore, a lot goes on behind the curtain, so to speak. Kids are always observing, always interpreting, even when they don’t have all of the information or the fullest picture available to them. It’s important that we be intentional about modeling positive, meaningful relationships.

In honor of Valentine’s Day this month, we are sharing three places you might focus to shape a healthy idea of love and relationships as your child grows. 

1. Model Loving and Respecting Yourself

Modeling respect and love for oneself is paramount. Make sure your kids catch you saying something nice about yourself, or showing respect for yourself by setting a limit on your own behavior. Are they witnessing you doing loving things for yourself? You might try audibly narrating what you’re modeling. For example, you might say: “I’m making a cup of tea and taking some time to read quietly tonight, because I had a hard day and that’s one way I can be cozy and take care of myself.” Or, if you want to demonstrate how one sets respectful limits as a form of self-care, you might share with them your decision-making process, such as, “I wish I could stay up late on Tuesday night to go to that concert, but I know I will be so tired and grumpy the next day.”

In this, you are modeling not taking frustrations or aggravations out on other people. You’re not denying your feelings, either. It’s great for kids to see us owning our needs. Sometimes, the best way to respect oneself and everyone else is to take a brief moment (even just 5 minutes) to step away and breathe. 

2. Model a Mutually Respectful Relationship

In a healthy, loving relationship, each person has a voice. Power is shared, along with responsibility. Children can experience shared responsibility when we demonstrate how even the simplest of tasks can pass back and forth between members of a household. It’s also incredibly powerful for them to hear the adults around them appreciating each other. A simple moment of gratitude sends a powerful message, like, “Thanks so much for unloading the dishwasher this morning. I was planning on doing it tonight, and it was such a treat to see it had already been taken care of.”

The same goes for sharing power. We can demonstrate that the best solutions come from respectful problem solving. Children can learn how to put the needs of the situation before their own opinions and preferences when they see the adults around them consistently doing so. For example, you might start a conversation about dinner planning for the week by saying, “Everyone wants to make this week’s mealtimes as easy as possible, and we also share the need for nourishing foods that fit our budget. I have some ideas and I’d love to hear yours. Can we talk about this together tonight?”

This is just one of hundreds of ways you can describe the needs of a situation and engage everyone in the family to come up with mutually beneficial and respectful solutions. And, it sure beats trying to account for everyone’s opinions and make everyone happy at the same time! Family Meetings, where power and responsibility are shared with all family members, can be a weekly opportunity for families to practice this life skill of problem-solving together.

3. Model the Courage to Be Imperfect

Perhaps the best news of all is we do NOT have to be perfect to give our kids an encouraging model of what respectful love can look like. After all, we will sometimes argue, say things we wish we hadn’t, and make mistakes with each other that can be hurtful.  It takes courage to own our mistakes and clean them up. This can be incredibly powerful for kids to see us doing.

Our kids will undoubtedly encounter adults in conflict from time to time. What they don’t always get the benefit of is seeing how it all gets resolved. Times like this are just as important a learning opportunity as the peaceful times. In the absence of a helpful adult interpreter, kids might assign blame to themselves or otherwise misinterpret the situation. (Was Mommy grumpy with Daddy because I didn’t pick up my toys?)

You might try sharing how you resolve conflict as it comes up. For example, “You saw we weren’t listening very well to each other yesterday and that caused an argument. What you didn’t get to see was that after your bedtime, we were both able to calm down and listen. We got to see things from another point of view, and then we shared a nice hug.” In this, we are showing our children that grown-ups make mistakes throughout life, and it is always possible to learn and grow from them.

Own your part when things get messy, and share how you came to resolution. Have your child see the resolution in a physical way, like a hug or kiss. In this, you’re modeling what to do when you have strong feelings, and how to clean up when you make a mess. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Alfred Adler, the founder of Individual Psychology described a good relationship as one that provides “the feeling that you are worthwhile, that you cannot be replaced, that your partner needs you, and that you are a fellow human being and a true friend.”

To be sure, there are as many expressions of loving relationships as there are people in the world. There is no ‘right way’ to show our children the path, and they are picking up clues in the smallest of places – from musical theater productions to everyday household chores. 

What we can do is be mindful of the powerful influence that we are. We might first think of ourselves as worthwhile, irreplaceable, and a needed fellow human and friend. We can also intentionally set a powerful model of mutual respect and healthy love in any of our adult relationships, which paves the way for our children to see, decide, and emulate in the future.