TEACHING CHILDREN ABOUT LOVE
Excerpt from Baffled by Love by Laurie Kahn
Why don’t we take the time to teach children about love? Imagine if a teacher began a class by asking her students a simple question: “How do you know if someone loves you?”
The lucky ones might say, “When my daddy makes my lunch and puts my favorite snack in my bag,” or “When my mom kisses me goodnight,” or “Love is when your mom puts balloons all over the house on your birthday.” Others, like my clients Kate, Jessica, and Suzy, would have darker responses, if they knew how to answer at all.
Kate never had a birthday party when she was a child. When she was six years old, she slept with a kitchen knife under her pillow. She was afraid that when her father returned home drunk, he would hurt her or her sister. She might say, “Love is when you hug your teddy bear and the house is quiet when your dad is asleep.”
Jessica might say, “Love is when your older sister rocks you to sleep at night and whispers in your ear, ‘It’s going to be all right. Close your eyes. Just don’t think about what happened; don’t think about it.’”
Suzy would be unable to answer. She does not know how to tell when someone loves her. When she was six, she asked her grandfather, “Why do you touch me down there?” He replied, “Because I love you, but don’t tell your mother.”
Love is not just a feeling. Love is a promise, a commitment. We should teach our children that love is not about keeping secrets. We should teach them that love is not supposed to hurt or frighten them. Love relies on affection, care, protection, accountability, kindness, responsibility, and respect.
The teacher could write these words on the board and give the children copies of the list to take home. Love, she could tell them, must include a commitment to another’s well-being. It is incompatible with abuse.
The students might not understand the meaning of all these words, but it would be good to give them a definition of love. Then, of course, the teacher would also have to show her students something about love, because children cannot truly learn about love with just words.
By CTA or Metra
- Take the Purple Line/Evanston Express or the Metra Union Pacific District North Line and get off at the Davis Street Evanston stop
- Walk west on Davis or Church
- Cross to the west side of Ridge
- Turn right (north) to 1740 Ridge. It’s about a 2-block walk.
By Laurie Kahn
In February I returned to South Africa as part of a delegation studying post traumatic stress, and as a speaker at the First African Congress on Traumatic Stress. It was our charge to ponder the nature of trauma in a country undergoing dramatic social change. On a similar delegation three years ago we visited trauma clinics in Johannesburg and Capetown, and I had the privilege of seeing this captivating and beautiful country. The coastline of Capetown had remained a picture postcard that seemed imprinted in my mind: a beach surrounded by cliffs, white sand, and waters the richest colors of blue. When I first saw the coastline I noticed a figure emerging on the horizon. As it came into focus I could see a person riding a horse. The magical moment stayed with me. More than once I had dreamt of the abandonment and ecstasy of riding a horse on the beach.
So there I was in Capetown, staying in a hotel with serious and well-informed therapists in the field of trauma, and all I could think about was riding a horse on the beach. Two members of the delegation, Joyce and Sharon, agreed to accompany me as my personal “”dream team”. We arrived at the horse farm, my body filled with excitement and anticipation. We selected and mounted horses. Inside I was like a little kid jumping up and down with excitement. Externally my joy could only be recognized by the silly grin on my face. The beach opened up ahead of us; it was beautiful as I had anticipated. I began riding, galloping; I love the energy of a horse beneath me…The horse’s gait intensified – he began racing down the beach indifferent to my presence. My excitement gave way to fear.
The next moment I remember I was lying on the beach. Joyce was leaning over me telling me not to move. Blood was on my face, arms, and ear, and I was covered in seaweed. I lifted back onto a horse and we slowly walked back to the barn, and from there driven to the emergency room in a small hospital on the outskirts of Capetown.
My friends and colleagues remarked “Laurie, you went to South Africa to study trauma, not to experience trauma.” I was puzzled by their reaction. Yes, my body was shaken. I had broken my hand in three places, yet the moment of fear and helplessness when I was thrown off the horse was not what I most remembered. My colleagues Joyce and Sharon had transformed into loving companions. They stayed by my side, advocated for me in the hospital, and provided constant care and warmth. As I returned to the delegation I was greeted with hugs and smiling faces. My bruises were evident, yet the world had remained a kind place. Twenty-four hours after surgery I spoke on a panel with women from South Africa and Israel. Words were spoken, experiences shared and boundaries melted as we shared our wisdom and our vulnerabilities working with trauma. I returned home triumphant, proud of my resiliency, feeling well held by the kindness of strangers and friends.
In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had come to a close. A major task of the commission was to bear witnessto the victims of human atrocities. The survivors of torture and the witnesses of the murders of their sons told their stories. The voices that had been silenced during apartheid spoke and a nation listened; the victims surrounded by compassionate faces. My hand would heal in a few short months. Healing in South Africa is daunting, the wounds less visible and more penetrating. My core beliefs about self, the kindness of others and safety in the world were intact, theirs shattered.
Many in South Africa dream of and work toward national healing. Their example and my experience in South Africa continue to deepen my belief in the power of community to buffer wounds to the body, soul, and psyche.
By Laurie Kahn
Maria walked into my office for her first appointment. Her complexion was untarnished by life’s worries, acne or damage of the wind or sun. Her hair was pulled back, almost glistening. Tall with long legs and not a hint of body fat, she shook my hand, smiled and sat down.
Maria began by telling me, in slightly accented English, that she was visiting the United States to finish a graduate degree. She was nearing the end of the program and had been an excellent student. She was living with her fiancé, who she described as a wonderful, handsome man who was from one of the wealthiest families in her country. I began to wonder – why is this woman in my office? I am not used to clients with fairy-tale lives, in which the prince really does show up.
As the session continued, I became restless. I asked her, “Can you tell me something about your family?” Perhaps there was some dark secret, a betrayal, loss of a mother at an early age.
She said she had grown up in a loving family and always felt very well cared for. Upon further reflection, she recalled having had some arguments with her mother during adolescence.
Maria continued that people in her home town were excited about her upcoming wedding, knowing it would be spectacular. The plans were proceeding on schedule – a full orchestra had been hired, the flowers were ordered, with white roses as the dominant theme. As my impatience and envy began to blend into an unfamiliar mix of emotions I blurted out: “So why are you here?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I am having a terrible time getting along with my future mother-in-law.” That’s it? I thought to myself. It sounded like a challenge for Dear Abby. Reluctantly, I agreed to another appointment for the following week.
The next week she arrived exactly on time for her afternoon appointment.
I noticed I began to feel self-conscious, thinking of my wrinkled clothes, my hair that I hadn’t brushed since that morning, just before I ran out of the house with a pop tart in my mouth. I looked down at my hands to see my nail polish half chipped off. She looked like a model, the kind with the natural look.
“My fiancé’s mother is so pushy and demanding” she began. “I know she wants the best for us”, she added, probably in order not to appear too negative, “but she keeps taking over the wedding plans. I want a wedding that is simpler and not so elaborate.” “So what happens when you express yourself?” I asked.
“She gets mad and stops talking to me.”
I searched unsuccessfully for an empathic response. Then I realized: Maria had no experience with adversity. No experience standing up for what she believed in the face of someone’s disapproval. No experience soothing herself after taking a risk and appearing foolish. No experience recovering from rejection and reclaiming her self-worth. She lacked that secret supply of confidence that only evolves from having slain some of life’s dragons.
I felt my heart warm as Maria and I began to discuss the challenges of developing resiliency and finding a voice.
My next client typically arrived ten minutes late. Her childhood had more in common with the fairy tale Cinderella, the part before she gets to go to the ball. In grade school she would get herself and her younger sister up for school while her alcoholic mother was passed out on the couch. At age eight she learned to talk to creditors on the telephone to try to keep the phone and electric service from being turned off. For three weeks during the summer of her eleventh birthday, she was left home alone in charge of her younger sister with grocery money and a three-mile walk to the nearest store.
As a child and adult she had routinely performed acts of courage. Her resilience and tenacious spirit were unquestionable. What she lacked was a belief in happy endings. For the first time, she was dating a man who was kind and loving. She had remarked to me that she used to think people were lying when they said they had good relationships. Now she was beginning to think it was possible. As she said this, she had smiled like a kid who had discovered a new flavor of ice cream.
I have witnessed many clients build good lives out of the ashes and cinders of broken dreams. I’ve admired their ability to regain faith when they have been betrayed. I have been inspired by their willingness grieve losses and transform their lives. Some might willingly change places with Maria. Yet, it is comforting to know that in the dark moments that we have the capacity to persevere, and to triumph in the face of adversity.
By Laurie Kahn
I have returned to New York many times since September 11 and always find myself wandering back to the damage. The streets surrounding ground zero are littered with memorials. Teddy bears with red white and blue ribbons around their necks. Plaques with the names of police and firefighters who died in the World Trade Center. Street corner memorials with wilted flowers and names of loved ones scribbled on cardboard with frayed edges. A bicycle chained to a lamppost, draped with flowers and a red scarf, and dedicated to a bicycle messenger. Construction workers with pictures sewn on the back of their work clothes of a friend lost in the disaster. Circling the streets you know something horrific has happened. Grief is in the air. Maybe a little less palpable now than in September or October but it is undeniable. Every time I revisit the memorials it is strangely reassuring. I worry as I age I may become one of those people who spend their spare time going to funerals of people they barely knew. Communities gathering, praying, grieving and collectively honoring their losses – it soothes me. Pain mitigated by the embrace of friends and neighbors.
It is the unwitnessed losses that trouble me. The ones that are hidden. Where communities don’t gather and tears are not shed. The places in which there are no memorials.
I am haunted by the unnamed losses of my clients. The loneliness that comes when your public cheeriness is camouflage for the pain inside. The isolation that comes when the stories of your childhood are riddled with violence and abuse, and don’t make good dinner conversation. Not knowing the comfort of friendship because your desire for closeness is coupled with fear. The loss of pleasure because you experience shame with sexual desire. Not finding relationships that nourish because again and again you choose ones that mirror what you learned in an abusive family. The loss of not having had the comfort of an adult when you were in pain. The loss of not being a virgin when you chose your first lover.
My heart aches and I wonder where are the memorials, the teddy bears, the plaques with the names of those who lost their childhoods. Those who have had to resurrect from the ashes a capacity to love, a sense of self and dignity. I sit in my office behind closed doors. I companion my clients; together we walk through the debris of betrayals. I know there is a need greater than what I can provide. My compassion and skills are not adequate to the magnitude of the developmental and psychological scars of their traumas. The stories are hard to hear, yet I wonder why are so many people willing, even clamoring, to witness the site of the terrorist attack on New York and so unwilling to know and witness the losses suffered by childhood abuse.
I want to assure my clients that their grief is not theirs to bear alone. It belongs to all of us. I want to tell them that there should be a moment of silence every day in every community where a child’s spirit was lost. That child we all know or have glanced at or have been ourselves, the one whose eyes stopped sparkling with curiosity and wonder. I want to tell them if they listen very carefully they can hear a village weeping.
By Laurie Kahn
It’s a familiar mantra in women’s circles: we look for love in all the wrong places. There is a plethora of information about bad relationships. What they look like, feel like, act like: what to avoid. Danger signs are listed in self-help books and painted on the walls of women’s bathrooms. Caution: this relationship may be dangerous to your health and well-being. Statistics remind us that women’s lovers, partners and husbands are potentially lethal. However, we are relational creatures. We flourish in the connections of love, friendship and mutuality. We look for love, despite the warnings. And we wonder: is this the good kind or the kind we’ve been warned about?
We need good stories about love. We need to replace the fairytale love stories and the tragic love stories with new stories. I envision a circle of women sharing our best stories of love. Not “the earth moved” stories, not “I walked around with a silly smile on my face for a week” stories, but stories about relationships that are sustaining. Relationships in which you can be fully yourself. Stories in which the person you love takes pleasure in both your competence and your vulnerability. Stories of trust and deepening regard. In a circle of such women I would tell this story. It’s about a fight I had with my husband Michael.
I was in South Africa on a three-week trip. I was invited to lecture at the first-ever African conference on Traumatic Stress. It was an honor and a challenge for me to speak to an audience of mental health practitioners from different parts of Africa and the international community. I had been to South Africa two years earlier and had witnessed the optimism and despair of a country newly emerging into freedom. I had been moved by the experience; it had changed my understanding of trauma and healing and taught me about the power of community, song, and moral leadership. I hoped I could find some small way to give back.
In addition to my good intentions I had arrived in South Africa with a secret wish: to ride a horse on the beach on the beautiful coastline near Cape Town. Several days before the conference, a colleague and I made our way to a horse ranch. Just minutes into our ride, my horse broke into a wild gallop, and I was thrown. I had gashes on my face and arms and a vague sense that there was something very wrong with my arm or hand. As the numbing started to subside I began to tremble. My colleague drove me to a hospital in the township outside of Durban. The attendants, with some difficulty, rounded up enough sterile cotton to clean my wounds. An x-ray showed I had broken my hand in three places. I returned to my hotel wearing a temporary cast.
My colleague called my husband and told him that I had had an accident and that I was OK, but would need surgery. I spoke with my husband for a moment, with the shaky voice that accompanies the aftershock of an accident. He was kind and reassuring.
The next morning Michael called and said he had booked me on a flight home and had made an appointment with a surgeon in Chicago. I paused for a moment and said, “I am not coming home.” I assured him that I could find a good surgeon in South Africa. I had a mission and I had every intention of completing my journey and attending the conference. My husband, in a steady and not yet escalated voice, explained that my right hand was very important and I should not be so casual about hand surgery. Our voices grew louder and both of us became more and more adamant about our positions. I’m not sure if I hung up on him or if he hung up on me.
Our fight saddened me. I knew, as I lay in bed that night, that he was feeling helpless and protective, and underneath my determination and independence I was frightened by the prospect of having surgery so far from home. The pain in my hand and back made it difficult to sleep.
The next morning when I took my bruised body to breakfast, someone from the hotel handed me a fax. The fax read: “Here is the name and phone number of a hand surgeon in South Africa. Your dreams matter to me too. With Love, Michael”
I called the number my husband had given me and set up an appointment. I flew from Durban to Johannesburg for surgery. My husband and I were in constant contact by phone: We spoke on our cell phones as I arrived at the clinic, moments before surgery, and as I woke up from anesthesia.
The next morning with my arm in a cast, an aching body and a bruised face I spoke to the First African Conference on Traumatic Stress. I ended my speech with a poem and I looked up into the warm faces of the audience applauding. I was told that my speech was later translated into Zulu and distributed to mental health workers in the townships. Many remarked that I looked like a trauma victim myself, yet within I had the strength and resolve of women who knew she was well loved.
Now, I look toward hearing the other women’s love stories.
By Laurie Kahn
I had worked with Martha for many years. We visited her childhood of loss and sexual abuse together, the suicide of her brother, struggles with infertility and alcohol, the adoption of her son, and difficulties with her marriage. As Martha left my office one day she turned back and said, “I love you.”
I smiled warmly, as she started to leave. With her hand reaching for the door knob she glanced back again and said, “It wouldn’t kill you to say you loved me too.”
I thought to myself: Caring? Sure. Compassion? Definitely. Fondness? Absolutely. But love? Was that going too far? Did it push the limits of the sacred client-therapist relationship? The therapeutic relationship with clear, well-defined boundaries? I sit in the black chair with the padded arms and my clients sit in the purple tweed chair or the tan cloth chair. It’s all very predictable. Predictable is good. One of my colleagues once said they thought they bored their clients into health.
As Martha left that day, I was reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, when he turns to Golde, his wife of 25 years, and asks her for the first time ever, “Do you love me?”
“Do I love you?” She replies as if he had asked a puzzling, slightly annoying and preposterous question. “I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, and milked your cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”
I have written articles for professional journals about child abuse and its impact on the constructs of love. It is a topic I have thought about for many hours. Yet, at that moment with Martha I was speechless. I believed I was walking into dangerous terrain. I wondered: Is love the blurring of professional boundaries which can spill over to a sea of emotional quicksand?
Therapists are entrusted with a relationship in which we are mandated to ensure safety. Unfortunately, stories of sexual exploitation of clients by their therapists fill the annals of our profession. Our clients come with histories of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Their caretakers have trampled their boundaries of body and spirit with no expressed regret. Love becomes an alibi. “But your father loves you,” Sophie’s mother tells her when she complains about her father’s rages and beatings. Susan asks her grandfather “Why do you touch me down there?” “Because I love you” he replies “but don’t tell your mother.” Love is riddled with danger and ambiguity.
It is my job to provide a compassionate yet safe and contained environment. Being a therapist is humbling. I make mistakes. I take responsibility when I do, and I make repairs. I am constantly engaged in the discipline of reflecting on the feelings that are evoked in me, so I do not do harm. The courage of my clients and the healing process fills me with awe.
Are we haunted by the notions of love that emerge from the betrayals of abuse? Is the combination of caring, commitment, responsibility, and awe – love?
I thought about Martha’s question with new clarity. I knew, as Golde also knew when she replies to Tevye “If this is not love, what is? I suppose I do love you.”
Tevye responds, “It doesn’t change a thing, but it’s nice to know.”
By Laurie Kahn
I work with people with complex posttraumatic stress disorder; mostly people who have endured traumatic betrayals in their childhoods and are still struggling with the effects. The symptoms of PTSD are listed in the diagnostic manual, a kind of bible of the psychiatric field. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe startle responses and emotional numbing. However, that’s not what people talk about when they first come to therapy. They say they want to be able to love and be loved by someone, and that things aren’t going well.
Learning how to love is no trivial matter when what you have learned about love has been tarnished with the scars of abuse. As a child, if your parents or others who are entrusted to protect you hurt you; you believe that love and danger can walk hand in hand. If you witness violence between people who claim to love each other, love and violence become acceptable partners. As an adult, you then wander in the world unable to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Love is elusive and confusing. You yearn for it; wondering if you will recognize it when it appears and if you will know how to do it.
Tony came to therapy believing his behavior might be putting his marriage in jeopardy. He described his childhood. “Yelling, hitting, and humiliating each other was part of our daily family routine. My mother would call my sister a stupid bitch and then resume a friendly phone conversation. My dad would tell us that family was what mattered above all else but we treated each other so poorly. I saw my parents in the kitchen screaming, pushing, and shoving each other. I recall the fear and disgust I felt when I watched my father hit my mother. Now, I yell at my kids and my wife and I hear those horrible words come out of my mouth and it’s not who I want to be.”
Tony asked if he could bring his wife Rachael to his next counseling session hoping he could repair his relationship with her.
As the session began, Rachael listed all the horrible things Tony would say to her when he was mad. She described how it would take her days to recover after one of Tony’s blow-ups.
Tony responded, “She makes it sound like I’m a monster, she thinks she’s so perfect and the all the problems we have are just about me.”
It didn’t take twenty years of experience as a therapist to predict that this conversation was not going to go well. I asked Tony, “What do you most wish Rachael understood about you?” Tony began to shift from an aggressive posture with jaws clenched to a more pensive expression. “I wish Rachael understood how much I love her.” I blew on the spark. “What do you love about her?” Looking more vulnerable he said. “I think she’s beautiful, she’s a wonderful mother, a good person, honest, smart, and I like that she stands up to me and won’t let me get away with treating her badly.”
Rachael met Tony’s eyes. The conversation softened. They spoke of the ways they felt lucky to have each other, and the kind of family they wanted to have with their children. I congratulated them on being able to shift from anger to kindness. At the end of the session I told Tony “If you want to protect this relationship, no matter how mad you are at Rachael you may not call her a bitch.” He solemnly nodded as if this new information might be useful.
What Tony had known of love had left him maimed in his most important relationships. He had learned in his family that when you love someone you can say anything you want, without any regard for the impact it has. It was as if his family hurled hand grenades at one another, leaving self esteem and trust in the wreckage.
The next week Tony returned to my office: “I keep thinking about the story you told me,” “What story?” I wondered. “The one about love,” he said. I couldn’t recall ever talking about love. Tony, noticed my blank look, and was kind enough to continue; “You told me that there was tension between your daughter and Michael when you first started dating him. You were concerned about their relationship. As time passed you mentioned to your future father-in-law that you thought there was some progress in their relationship. Your father-in-law asked you what had given you such optimism. You told him that they were having more open conflicts and that they weren’t being so careful to always be on their best behavior. Your father-in-law paused, “That’s funny”, he said, ” I thought you were always supposed to be on your best behavior with your family. “
I did recall telling Tony that story. Michael’s family believed that the best, most loving, most thoughtful part of yourself should be reserved for your family. They believed that the relationships with your family were sacred.
With tears in his eyes, Tony looked up at me. “That’s what I want to be able teach my children.”