Love For Beginners

Is love an action? A feeling? An attitude? Has anything in the history of civilization ever been written about, wondered about, or questioned as much as love? The following article will not solve this mystery of the universe, but rather share some relevant ideas about what love does and doesn’t look like with teenagers.

The opposite of love
Every school-aged young person knows about bullying. They have seen it, experienced it, or been warned of its dangers. Bullying is an emotional or physical attack. It can be an objective phenomenon, a subjective perception, or both. 

For example, we might watch a teenager yell to a girl as he rides past on his bike, “don’t fall over chicken legs!” His actions are an observable fact – he has mocked her and name-called. Is it bullying? Perhaps. The girl’s reaction also provides some information. If she rolls her eyes and thinks, “get a life,” as she continues on and forgets about the incident – does she feel bullied? It would be something different if this were a continual dynamic between these teens that eroded the girl’s self-esteem by the day.

Bullying is usually ongoing targeting, and it results in the victim feeling powerless and tortured. It can look like picking on, exclusion, threats, making fun, and/or physical abuse. Bullying happens when we are old and young, but can be especially difficult when teens intensely feel a need to be accepted. 

Maybe you have been the focus of a bully’s attention, and know what it’s like to have your stuff thrown around or a room of people laughing at you. Do these actions feel loving? Let’s turn the whole scenario on its head.

The look of love
Imagine a group of teens approaching a kid eating alone. One of them asks, “Hey where are you from?” The new boy replies, “Penticton. I moved here last week.” Another person asks, “How come?” while someone else wants to know, “How do you like Fernie so far?” They get into a conversation about the pros and cons of changing high schools, and a member of the group says, “We just thought you might be lonely here by yourself,” and then they spend the whole break chatting together. 

While this might seem ‘normal’ to some readers, or ‘unusual’ to others, there are different adjectives we could use to describe this interaction. What about ‘friendly?’ Perhaps ‘warm’ or ‘accepting’ or ‘curious’ come to mind. 

Practicing empathy
Empathy is the capacity to care about or understand the experience of another person. We are born with an innate ability to be empathetic, but it will only flourish in the right environment. The good news is, we can recover this essential skill and build our empathy muscle if it doesn’t fully develop. 

The award-winning Canadian program Roots of Empathy is taught in classrooms around the world. I was a Roots of Empathy teacher over a decade ago in North Vancouver and facilitated interactions between pre-teens and a baby (the mom was there too!) for a whole school year. 

In Roots of Empathy, the students come to understand and openly love ‘their’ baby, and express a greater ability to see the point of view of another person. The program was created as an antidote to bullying.

Teenagers learn what they live
Do you remember that old poem from the ’70s called Children Learn What They Live? I had an aunt who displayed it on her refrigerator, and as a child, it seemed like a no-brainer. “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn… If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.” These things are still true. 

What kind of lessons do the most powerful people promote nowadays? If you want that girl just grab her by the p***y. To get a pipeline constructed simply ignore the provincial legislation to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If we want our children to learn something different, there is work to do.

I want all teenagers to experience true warmth, curiosity, and the sense that empathy is ordinary. For young people love is pretty black and white: don’t be a bully; be a friend by acting like you care.