As Leo Tolstoy aptly put it in his famous Anna Karenina, “I think... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts”. Tolstoy was right, there are so many different kinds of love – whether it’s romantic love, platonic love, or lust. Love can take the form of a friend cooking food for a loved one in the hospital, or a mother looking at her infant child for the first time, or a child sharing their last piece of candy with their best friend. Most people consider love to be “adult” emotion and therefore may not prioritize teaching children about it. However, Dr. Richard Weissbourd from the Harvard Graduate School of Education encourages us to look at love through a different lens when it comes to children; he thinks self-maturity, respect, and deep appreciation are important aspects of love to focus on when cultivating this virtue in children. Teaching children how to cultivate and practice self-love from an early age may be key to raising adolescents and individuals who can then appreciate and love others well.
Psychological Research on Love
Many studies in psychology focus on two concepts based in mindfulness practices: loving-kindness meditation (LKM) and compassion meditation (CM). The practices are used to enhance unconditional, positive emotional states of kindness and compassion. In one such study, participants were randomly assigned to either the LKM condition or an imagery condition. In the LKM condition, people were instructed to imagine two loved ones standing on either side of them and sending their love. Then, they were told to open their eyes and redirect these feelings toward the photograph of a complete stranger. In the imagery condition, participants did almost the same thing except they imagined two acquaintances standing next to them.
They found that Loving Kindness Meditation had a significantly greater effect on explicit and implicit positivity toward strangers. Implicit positivity was measured by response time to a particularly emotionally-charged word.Implicit positivity means that though a person might not be able to express that something has changed, a change in their behavior (like response time) tells us that something has indeed changed within them. They also found that LKM was associated with greater implicit positivity towards the self as well. This study found that a short exercise of loving-kindness meditation could lead to big changes in how people thought of others and themselves.
Another study investigated if Loving Kindness Meditation could help enhance daily experiences of positive emotions. Researchers conducted 60-minute LKM sessions over the course of 7 weeks and found that this specific type of meditation led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions including love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe. Even more impressive, these emotional shifts lasted for a number of weeks after the course ended.
Teaching Children About Love
Dr. Weissbourd believes that for children and adolescents in particular, love is an important virtue to cultivate intentionally because society tends to focus heavily on preparing young adults for work, but not love. If children were taught to love themselves and others the way they’re taught to work hard, maybe intimate relationships with partners, family, and friends in young adulthood and beyond would prove to be easier, healthier, and more successful.
Creating content that can help children cultivate positive, loving emotions toward the self and others is therefore an essential skill that shouldn’t be shoved off until adulthood. Love, in all of its forms, will be present all throughout life. Therefore, it is crucial that the media children consume teach them about love by depicting healthy relationships with others ways to love and care for themselves.
Recommendations for cultivating love in children and adolescents through media:
Dr. Weissbourd recommends showing children positive representations of healthy relationships.
Create apps that promotes engagement of Loving Kindness Meditation for 5 minutes every day – think of a loving moment in your life, focus on the emotion of that loving feeling, try to project these feelings onto others you visualize.
Cultivate self-love by encouraging writing what you like about yourself!
Create media that demonstrates characters exercising self-love and self-care practices.
Julia Schorn is a second-year Ph.D student in Psychology at UCLA, with a focus in cognitive neuroscience and memory. In her free time she enjoys playing the harp and making science accessible to everyone!
This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.