What children can teach us about love
We can learn a lot about love from children.
Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm, or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing. There is, as slightly older children sometimes conclude with serious discomfiture, no “point” to them; that is their point. They teach us to give without expecting anything in return, simply because they need help badly—and we are in a position to provide it. We are inducted into a love based not on an admiration for strength but on a compassion for weakness, a vulnerability common to every member of the species and one which has been and will eventually again be our own. Because it is always tempting to over-emphasise autonomy and independence, these helpless creatures are here to remind us that no one is, in the end, “self-made”: we are all heavily in someone’s debt. We realise that life depends, quite literally, on our capacity for love.
The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behaviour.
The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief, or the anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation—and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship—is its charity. Parents are apt to proceed from the assumption that their children, though they may be troubled or in pain, are fundamentally good. As soon as the particular pin that is jabbing them is correctly identified, they will be restored to native innocence. When children cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. When they bite, we know they must be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are alive to the insidious effects that hunger, a tricky digestive tract, or a lack of sleep may have on mood.
How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships.
If here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognise the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.
Extract taken from "The Course of Love." - Alain de Botton