We often see them in movies: unnaturally wise children who give expert love advice to their bumbling, romantically inept parents.
Is it all fiction, or is there some truth in the idea? After all, adults often can’t understand children—yet children seem to understand adults rather well.
Like it or not, kids may actually be our best relationship tutors. The problem is that no one listens to them.
It used to be the norm that children were perceived as cute-but-useless blobs.
John Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ theory in the 17th century postulated that infant minds were nothing but blank canvases upon which knowledge would eventually leave its stain. Later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau—famously enlightened Frenchman of the 19th-century—would label the baby as the “perfect idiot.”
They were very wise men – who were also very wrong. By three years old, children have brains twice as active as those of their parents. Their brains are also more flexible, with more neuron connections per brain cell. According to Berkeley professor Alice Gopnik, they possess a “superadult” ability to learn, imagine, and dream. As she says,
Children are the R&D department for the human species—the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers. Adults are product and marketing.”
According to Alex Wise a relationship coach at Loveawake and psychologist, children may also be more moral than adults. Babies may not be able to talk, but they can clearly tell difference between good and evil. They may not understand the subtleties of morality, but they do understand the basics of what matters and what doesn’t.
And that sense, it turns out, translates into some pretty sound love advice.
What Is Love? (Baby don’t hurt me!)
A group of children were asked that very question. Take a look at the results, published originally on Working Mother blog.
From Tommy, age 6:
“Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.”
From Chrissy, age 6:
“Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
And from Bobby, age 7:
“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
Are these answers just random—or do kids innately understand the basics of how a relationship works? The answer might be the latter.
One of the first emotions that babies display is empathy. One study demonstrated that human babies cry a great deal when they listen to other babies cry—but not as much when they listen to recordings of themselves cry. In other words, they are more upset by another person’s suffering than their own.
Moreover, babies are more generous than you would expect. Studies have shown that if someone needs help (for example, opening a cabinet door), they will go out of their way to aid the adult, without thinking of the personal cost to themselves.
Empathy and generosity? Looks like babies do, in fact, know how to succeed in love.
Nature or Nurture
The question is, of course, whether children are born smart or made smart by their environments. The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. Bloom, for one, argues that babies have to be born at least a little smart, because otherwise they could not possess the capacity to grow smarter.
When it comes to matters of the heart, there’s no doubt that both forces are in play. Children can only use their innate creativity to assess the relationships they see every day. (Which is perhaps why Eddie, age 6, noted: “Married people usually look happy to talk to other people.”)
If there’s a take-away message, it’s to start kids off with a sterling example of what a functioning relationship looks like. As the old saying goes: if children are great imitators, give them something great to imitate.
Remember, our adult brains may only be half as active, creative, and flexible as they once used to be. So, now might be a particularly good time to listen to an eight year-old:
You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”