Love is not a feeling. It's so much more than that. We often look to quotes and stories (often movies...) to help us determine what love is. Yet we know what love is when we see it or experience it. As you get older, you understand greater depths of love. If you're like me, you even learn new ways to love or ways in which love can be shown to those all around you.
It's difficult to teach children and teens about love. Teens fall into love hard when they are too young to handle it. Even adults often can't handle it, or it's repercussions.
Then we're all familiar with family love. Some of us know it, some of us don't. Some of us think family TV shows don't resemble anything except cheesiness.
If you're a stepparent, you know that no show really shows what its like for over 50% of the families that exist in our nation- the blended families. (Maybe Modern Family will prove that statement wrong in due time, but there is only one blended family. The irony exists in Al Bundy playing the stepdad.)
Stepkids don't recognize the love or love acts that a stepparent give them as love. It can't possibly be something of love to them, because it's different. They don't hold the parent or grandparent title. It's sometimes a forced, but attempted, type of love. Sort of like their siblings' form of love... They don't recognize that either, frankly.
My husband and I have found that we have to teach them about love. Maybe every parent should directly teach their children about love- real love. No one really talks about that except churches, maybe. I covered it in school because I went to Lutheran private schools. I already knew I wanted to teach my stepkids about real love when they started talking about a boyfriend, but it occurred to us that we needed to teach our stepkids about love in general. Every type of love.
These kids are a little different from most. Their mom has yelled and screamed at them if they didn't give someone a hug. People they just met, sometimes. They grew up with parents who did not love each other at, and now they've witnessed two remarriages. We know for a fact that our love and marriage is very different from their mom's remarriage... And at times they have been able to avoid their father's unconditional love to support their mother who uses fear in her love. They've seen adults debate the love of their parents' for them and argue about how love is shown. Love must be a somewhat terrifying concept beyond the common "I love you, too" they automatically respond with over the phone.
We introduced them to church and the concept of Godly love. We've read to them from 1 Corinthians 13 when certain conversations have come up. They've learned that a church family exists and that the love that comes from the people in the church is something they've never seen from near strangers before. Church has also introduced them to love for others, strangers. Helping someone clean, helping the poor, helping a school. They've learned servant love, and will continue to from our family and our church.
Loving my stepkids is very difficult sometimes, and not at other times. It's jarring for them to come back to my house sometimes, while other times I feel like they should be here. Social psychology teaches us that emotion actually follows action. For instance, giving actually can cause affection. Strange, but true. We mentally justify the actions, too.
We've also spent years trying to teach the kids that respect shows love. My older stepdaughter often showed as much disrespect as possible, yet craved her dad's attention. This was very hard for us to deal with, as it was clear she needed and wanted him, but every word from her mouth said the opposite. This is predicted with parental alienation syndrome, as discussed in Divorce Poison and other books that actually describe the mental and emotional turmoil the children go through, rather than oversimplifying a child's sadness about divorce in general. It's not as much about losing the parents as an entity together as a childhood understanding of picking a "side" and pure brain manipulation. It's been years of teaching them respect, and it seems like a lot of it has sunken in now, finally. Or for now.
We wish MTV had funded the World's Strictest Parents show a little sooner. The kids are completely obsessed with that show now, and it's the epitome of how respect and love are learned. Angry, confused teens are sent off to some other family's house. The other family has their act together and has deep love and connection, but with rules and respect. The teens resist the first 2 days and very quickly succumb because of the love and understanding they're shown even with the rules they previously hated. (Side note: I've noticed that the change usually happens a little easier when the temporary family also includes a service job of some sort for those that are underserved...Always a great activity for today's pretty spoiled kids. Your parents may be divorced, but at least you're not addicted to drugs, homeless, or wish you could have shoes without holes.) We also wish we'd known the power of certain TV programs and movies to help us. We did use VeggieTales a bit, but have you ever realized that the movies Hook and Jack Frost actually cover the difficulty of love and separation with a father- and even manipulation? Kids relate to movies and television... USE it. I'm not really sure why we didn't wage a full TV and movie campaign sooner...Use it to open the door to discussions. If teachers can do it, you can too.
The TV shows and movies open up discussions with the kids in a comfortable way. And then church directly approaches so many topics that families struggle to introduce. They get in the car and excitedly tell us about how they learned about giving, forgiving, etc. They have games or crafts that resemble what they learned and help them remember. It has been so helpful for this struggling family that started without a solid foundation.
So, teach the kids about love. Teach them the lessons about love. Teach them that yelling at your spouse or friends or pets...Whomever it may be, is not love. Show them by example that strangers can be loved. Introduce loving actions, thoughtlessness, and its rewards. Don't assume they know just because they're told, "We love you." Understanding what it means will help them so much in the future, and I bet a foundation in understanding love will help them sort out what happened with their parents rather than add to the confusion.