My 4 ½ year old nephew decided one day that he wanted to marry everyone who lived in his house. With great determination he located his mother, sister, and two brothers and placed his forehead to their forehead, eyes locked, and said, “I marry you.” After 4 consecutive marriages he found his dog and held her head against his head and declared, “I marry you too.” The only person who received a formal marriage proposal was his father who heard, “Daddy, I marry you too okay?”
By five years of age my two children expressed sentiments of deep and abiding love for their father and I too. My youngest daughter wouldn’t hold a boy’s hand in her dance class despite being told to repeatedly by her teacher. When I asked her why she wouldn’t touch the boy she said, “because I am going to marry my Daddy.” My eldest expressed her devotion through art and heartfelt messages of love notes, it is a wonderful time when a preschooler gives you their heart.
But why are preschoolers at this age moved to profess their love for the people they are closest to if the conditions are ideal? What are they really asking us and how can we best answer them?
It’s the birthplace of emotional intimacy …
When a child between the ages of 4 to 6 professes their love for someone it signals that a deep attachment is unfolding due to healthy development. This deep love comes on the heels of feeling significant to their loved ones as well as a strong sense that they matter to them a lot. It also comes after a sense of belonging and loyalty has been established between them, as well as a desire to be the same as them.
Marriage is one way a child may express the arrival of this deeper level of connection, especially if this is how love is expressed around them culturally. What you are witnessing is the birthplace of love and emotional intimacy. It means they now carry you inside their ‘heart’ and that the emotional parts of their brain have become engaged along with their attachment instincts. This deep connection is the result of many years of consistent, predictable, and reliable caretaking by their adults. It is the natural evolution in a relationship that contains warmth, enjoyment, as well as an unwavering invitation to be close, despite conduct and performance. It is something to be celebrated and not feared.
Healthy development requires that a child feel deeply rooted to a person they call ‘home.’ This provides the fuel to play and to grow. It is the place you return to when you face adversity and to find rest. Being attached at the heart level allows a child to spread their wings and explore, always knowing they are able to take their loved ones with them through a heart connection.
When a child gives their heart away to an adult, then this adult has the power to shield that child’s heart with their own. The wounding words of other kids don’t seem to hurt as much, and the despair that can set in after big losses can be processed through tears and feelings of sadness.
The goal of development is to free a child from their dependence on adults by providing the conditions in which they can truly mature. Being connected at the heart level allows a child to stretch and reach their full human potential as an independent being. It moves them to follow and obey their closest attachments and subdues their natural resistance and opposition that comes with increasing autonomy or just disagreeing with your agenda.
When a child connects to their adults at the heart level it also becomes a template for future relationships and friendships. It can become the benchmark against which they set expectations as to how they should be treated by others. Being able to give your heart to another person in a vulnerable way is the natural antidote to narcisissim and self-absorption. You learn that love is not something that you hold onto for yourself but is something you freely give to others without conditions.
A deep connection immunizes a child against falling for cheap substitutes that act loving towards them but are really self-serving in nature. They are also more likely to seek out people who can truly nourish them at the deepest levels. The capacity to love is unlocked inside a child because they have been deeply loved by others and love them back – this is how emotional intimacy is born.
We need to say yes…
There is no greater gift as a parent than to be given a child’s heart for safe keeping, but how do we reply to their requests for marriage?
We need to say yes ….
- Yes, I care for you deeply and carry you in my heart
- Yes, I will always be your mother/father
- Yes, I am yours
- Yes, you are mine
- Yes, this love is forever
When our children give us their hearts we need to say yes – and not a simple yes to reassure them that “I love you too.” It has to be the type of yes that resounds deeply in their bones that we love them more.
Our gift back to them is to let them feel that it is us who loved them first – before they could love, before they could feel deeply, and even before their heart started to beat. Our promise to them is that they won’t have to work for our love and that this is something we give to them freely – without conditions.
If we don’t say yes to a deeper bond with them they cannot hold onto us. We don’t have to agree or disagree with their marriage proposal at face value but rather, answer their question at the place that it matters. We need to answer the deepest hunger they have and one that can only be filled with an invitation for relationship that is unwavering. A deeper love between us is nature’s plan.
One day, when they are older, we may get to watch them give their heart to another person and hear those words, “for better or worse, and in sickness and in health,” to cement their relationship. We may remember back to a time when they gave their heart to us too and we will take comfort knowing that we dwelled there first and that first loves are forever.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a family counselling centre, she is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), which has been translated into 9 languages.