What do Children Think about Love?

Thirty preschoolers and kindergarteners give us a piece of their mind

Posted Mar 28, 2015

By Hannah Bondurant, Duke University

lovesicklove.com, used with permission
Source: lovesicklove.com, used with permission

A group of over thirty preschoolers and kindergarteners were asked what they thought of the word “love.” The answers that were written by hand are left in the original spelling (if you have trouble, sound it out). A special thanks to the children, the parents, and those at Hope Montessori who helped with the project.

What is Love?

  • "Special” –Sameera, age 3
  • “A heart” –Eeshan, age 3
  • “Candy and fruit, because they are sweet” –Barghav, age 4
  • “When Mia (my puppy) hugs and kisses me”- Anna, age 5
  • “My dad”- Asha, age 5
  • “Babies” –Kennedy, age 4
  • “Helping one another” – Maggie, age 6
  • “Giving people a hug”- Alex, age 3
  • “Balloons”- Dorian, age 3
  • “Everything that is nise” –Henry, age 5
  • “My brother going nuts” –Sarena, age 4
  • “Happy felings…sharing” –Rashil, age 5
  • “A plit(polite) word” –Preston, age 5
  • “Beign cind (kind)”- Uday, age 5
  • “Puppies” –Neal, age 3
  • “Together” –Intisar, age 5
  • “When you love everyone” – Anika, age 4
  • “Mowsic…mommy…cisen…and love can be from Trae to Mark” –Trae, age 5
  • “When you love someone, it means you don’t want her to go away….like something you do kind and sweet to them…you don’t ignore them.” –Nicholas, age 5

As you read the answers given, take note of the ages of the children. While only a couple years apart, the shift that has been shown in numerous experimental studies can be seen in this small sample. That is, as they develop, children go from an externally focused conceptual line of thinking to one more internally based. As Donaldson and Westerman (1986) pointed out, children originally begin centering their concepts around objects or events. For example, a three-year-old is more likely to state something concrete, such as “balloons” or “puppies” when they need to associate the word “love.” Any extra prodding to get them to explain why they think these objects are love is likely to be met with much exasperation.

However, as the brain begins to make more connections and the child experiences life, concepts start to be defined in terms of memories and attitudes. For example, “helping each other” is a common answer from five- year-olds when asked about “love.” Within just a few years, many children start to show an understanding of what a demonstration of this emotion is. This definition stems not only from education but also from experience.  While two years may seem a short time, these reports should help show us how important the consolidation of positive memories and correct attitudes regarding love can be. Not only should we be creating moments with our children that will reinforce their connection of love with us, but also encouraging and modeling the moral mindset towards love one ought to have. Never assume that your child has a simplistic view of these concepts (look at Nicholas’ answer above!) but rather communicate with him or her to make sure that YOU understand.

Studies have shown that talking to your child about his or her mental state not only helps increase language skills but also emotional and social understanding (Taumoepeau and Ruffman, 2008; Ensor and Hughes, 2008). Having conversations with your children about how they feel in relation to their behavior may not only be beneficial to you as a caregiver, but for them as well. Cognitive-behavioral therapy uses this same technique for adults as they are told to write down emotions when certain actions occur. So while we may assume a correlation between an emotional state and a behavior seems obvious, a child is still learning to connect the dots. Asking introspective questions of the young mind allows the child to become aware of psychological reactions as well as integrate internal thoughts with external life.

Of course, if one asks questions of a child, that person needs to be prepared to get some back! While answering some of these more abstract questions may be hard, there’s evidence supporting the ability to form such inquiries to be a crucial tool a child uses not only to learn but also to then solve problems (Chouinard, et al., 2007). Instead of brushing off a question that you as an adult have perhaps given up on, try to help your children find the answers for which they are looking. This may be directing them to examples that demonstrate the concept or even looking up a definition in an age-appropriate dictionary. This may lead to further questions, but fostering a love of knowledge is perhaps more important than a definite knowledge of love. While we may achieve the former, few of us achieve the latter.

A former research assistant of Dr. Brogaard’s, Hannah Bondurant is currently a graduate student at Duke University. Her experience ranges from synesthesia research and working at a Center for Trauma Recovery to being a yoga instructor. Specializing in cognition, consciousness, and other areas related to psychological philosophy, Bondurant hopes to continue relating empirical data to everyday life in her future work.