Just last week — don’t ask why — I had the perfect opportunity to ask my 6-year-old son Patrick about romance. If you’ve never asked a first-grader to tell you what he or she looks for in a partner, I highly recommend trying it at least once. Not only is it entertaining, it can also be fairly enlightening; after all, if I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have known that Patrick likes a girl with a “cute ponytail” or that he thinks it’s important for partners to express appreciation for each other. But talking about love and relationships with my kid while waiting in line at the coffee shop made me think about the big picture: How do children of all ages form their opinions and attitudes about love? And how do we, as the adults in their lives, influence those attitudes?
Richard Weissbourd, psychologist, author and co-director of the Making Caring Common Project (and a longtime friend of The Family Dinner Project), broke it down for me. “It’s important to model and be mindful of what you’re modeling. It doesn’t mean you never fight. In fact, it can be helpful to model how you work things out,” he told me, when I asked him about the importance of modeling relationships for kids. However, he was also quick to point out that modeling isn’t the only way to influence the attitudes our children have about romance. In many households, single parenthood or other factors may make it difficult to “lead by example” on a daily basis. “Lots of kids are growing up without models of good relationships, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t pass wisdom along to your kids about love,” Weissbourd assured me. “Lots of parents feel that because they have failed in their own relationships that they don’t have wisdom to share, but I think that’s wrong. Talk to kids about your learnings.”
It sounds like good advice, but I assumed that not every kid is going to be as eager to talk about romance as my six-year-old. Weissbourd agreed that they may not always make themselves available for conversation, but “Kids have questions — they want to talk to adults about how to distinguish between infatuation and real love. They’re interested in the idealism about love and about how to handle breakups or how to maintain a relationship. They’re trying to figure out how to start a relationship. I also think that teenagers are often very interested in ethical dilemmas in relationships. Is it okay for a senior to date a freshman? If a friend of mine is cheating, do I have a responsibility to tell? Minimally, you have to talk to your kids about respect and self-respect in relationships, whether they want to or not. It’s as important as the sex talk.”
With that encouragement in mind, I reached out to other members of The Family Dinner Project Team to find out how they handle modeling — and talking about — love and romance, especially around their dinner tables. Here are some of their tips:
Make romance visible.
“Leave each other notes and/or small gifts. Let your kids see them (making sure, of course, that they’re kid-appropriate!).” — Lynn Barendsen, The Family Dinner Project Executive Director
“Be physically affectionate — a kiss hello in the kitchen, a hug at the stove, a shoulder rub, is a way of staying connected to your partner, and letting your kids feel some of the warmth between the two of you.” — Dr. Anne Fishel, author of Home for Dinner and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project
“Making each other laugh is a huge part of our relationship, and it’s important to us that our son see us joking around with each other and being goofy, and including him in that part of how we interact – at the table especially, but really any time.” — Charlotte Svirsky, TFDP team member
Model caring and consideration.
“Lighten your partner’s burden by doing something over and beyond what is expected: ‘After the day you’ve had, let me do the dishes even though I made dinner tonight.’” — Anne
“I have teenage sisters, and they’ve spent quite a bit of time around me and Dan since we started dating – one of the things they’ve observed is how we organize our weeks as a family, and specifically, make sure that everyone feels supported. So if Dan has finals, I’ll make sure he gets extra time in the mornings and evenings; when I need to travel, or have a big project due, he’ll do the same for me.” — Charlotte
Let the seams show.
“Don’t hide the disagreements. Healthy relationships can, and sometimes should, involve disagreement. So if you argue, you can offer examples about how to do so thoughtfully. And then of course there’s the fun of making up!” — Lynn
“It can be helpful to model how you work things out. You don’t let things fester, you work things out in a way that’s relatively immediate and mature, thoughtful and appreciative of other points of view. You take other perspectives.” — Rick
Model the small gestures.
“Show appreciation: Thank your partner for her creative plan for dinner, for his going out to the grocery store to get that one missing ingredient, for her cooking while keeping an eye on the kids, and so on.” — Anne
“Every once in a while, Dan will take our son to get me coffee while I stay in bed. I think that models the simplicity of romance and how much little gestures matter in how you treat each other (not the big sweeping romantic gestures of movies, but little everyday things).” — Charlotte
Talk About It.
“Express love verbally — parents often tell their kids they love them, but why not say it to your partner in front of your kids?” — Anne
“Share stories about how you met, why you fell in love, what you love about each other.” — Lynn
“I think it’s a good idea to talk about TVs and films that you both watch — I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy with my daughter, which was a great way to talk about relationships. That’s not a hard thing to do. Sometimes immature and damaging ideas about relationships are included in media — sexism, misogyny, homophobia. As a parent you can’t let that stuff go by, you have to say something to your kids and say what you find troubling about it. It’s not just being reactive, it’s being proactive and letting kids hear what you think about healthy relationships.” — Rick
Ready to give it a try?
Start by asking these questions at your dinner table tonight:
- What do you think are the ideal characteristics for a life partner or spouse?
- How does someone act when they are “in love?”
- What do you think is the difference between love and romance?
- Do you believe in love at first sight?
- Can you think of some examples from books, TV or movies of healthy and unhealthy relationships?
For more tips on nurturing your relationship with a spouse or partner at the dinner table, visit our Family Starts with Two section!