The other day, I asked my kids (7 and 8 years old) to sign a birthday card for a relative that they had only met a few times. I expected that their misspelled words and child-like handwriting would be appealing to the card’s recipient. What I didn’t expect was for their messages to be full of love: “I love you,” “xoxox,” and hearts dotting each letter “i”. Where were these demonstrative notes for a relatively unknown person coming from? Should I be worried about my overly affectionate children?
As I was pondering their effusive affection for a distant relative, a quote from Aristotle in reference to “innocent youth” from my Psychology of Adolescence lecture came to mind:
“They are charitable rather than the reverse, as they have never yet been witnesses of many villianies; and they are trustful, as they have not yet been often deceived.”
(Admittedly, at the time I only remembered the gist of the quote; I had to look it up.)
I find comfort in this quote. It is probably true that my kids know they are loved; they have not been deceived (well, except for some fibs my husband and I have told about the amount of candy left in the house) and have every reason to trust others. In other words, because others have loved them unconditionally, they are willing to unconditionally love others.
Of course, it is not just Aristotle and I that have pondered whether or not some people seem to love more easily than others. Similar ideas are pervasive in the developmental psychology literature focusing on attachment. Attachment refers to the “bond” or relationship that infants develop with caregivers. In the first months of life, infants come to understand that there are a select few people (usually, 1 or 2 parents) who typically address their needs. The confidence that an infant develops in that person (or those people) contributes to their sense of attachment to those people. Sometimes that attachment is strong or “secure,” as researchers call it, and sometimes it is not – it is “insecure.” The extent to which caregivers are responsive to infants’ needs contributes to a secure attachment, while unresponsive or inconsistent caregivers tend to evoke more insecure attachments.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the attachment research is the implications it has for relationships outside of those we develop with our primary caregivers as infants. Researchers have linked the type of relationship we have with our caregivers (secure versus insecure) to the sorts of relationships we are likely to have with later romantic partners; secure early relationships are conducive to later secure relationships.1 It is typical for adults in secure romantic relationships to indicate that they feel supported by their partners and that their partners are central to their happiness and well-being.2 Further, securely attached adult relationships are even associated with greater physical and psychological health.2
In sum, the consequences of developing loving and trusting relationships as a child are far-reaching and have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of our adult lives.
As a parent, I can only hope that my own children continue to feel confident that they are worthy of love and capable of loving others. So, although it was initially disconcerting for me to see my kids as over eager when it comes to sharing their affection, I suppose this is not actually something to worry about. Although we all risk being deceived by those with whom we form relationships, the willingness to love and trust others is necessary for enduring adult relationships to flourish.
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1Shaver, P., & Hazan, C. (1987). Being lonely, falling in love: Perspectives from attachment theory. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 2, 105-124.
2Stanton, S. C. E., & Campbell, L. (2013). Psychological and physiological predictors of health in romantic relationships: An attachment perspective. Journal of Personality. Article first published online; doi: 10.1111/jopy.12056.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.