Readers reply: at what age do we become capable of love?  |  Life and style

Readers reply: at what age do we become capable of love? | Life and style

HASt what age do we become capable of love? Our nine-week-old baby seems grateful for his milk, and he’s started smiling at his parents and grandparents, but could he really be said to feel love? Sam Rockley, London

Send new questions to nq@theguardian.com.

Readers reply

Moments after we complete our initial eight-month-long underwater journey and emerge safely into the arms of our mother, who is as relieved and delighted as we are. Richard Orlando

We start to form lasting memories when we start to put our experiences into words. I think the same is true of love. My eldest son is four and we’ve been reading Winnie-the-Pooh. “Oh mummy, how I do love you,” he says, borrowing a classic line from AA Milne while wrapping his arms around me, setting his head on to my shoulder. He says it with a spontaneity and depth of feeling that go beyond his four years of life and I know what he says to be true.

My littlest one, on the other hand, is one and three-quarters and, while he certainly likes me, I can’t say he loves me yet. I am a vehicle that delivers what he needs: namely entertainment and stimulation, food, drink and the means to sleep. He is a simple creature – not a bear of very little brain, but a creature of habit – and if his vital needs are met then all is well in his world.

So, in answer to your question, I would say we learn to love somewhere between one and three-quarters and four. Jessica Hatcher Moore

From day one. A newborn can distinguish between its mother and the rest of the world; being close to her and locking eyes with her brings up oxytocin in both of them. So if love is a mixture of hormones and the wish to be close to somebody, it is all there at birth. Rushfield1Rye

Love within a family starts so young as to be hard to tie down. Outside that, I clearly remember the day I first fell in love with another human being. It was at a kindergarten in 1956 and I was four or five. I can picture her dark, frightened eyes quite clearly now. Jolyon Elsmore

Able – what an interesting question. I felt profound love for my daughter on first glimpse and I “felt” she reciprocated that love as she focused on my eyes almost immediately. Alas, alack, once I put her in the bath at home, she gazed with absolute adoration at the bath set (two taps separated by a long water outlet) above her. I realized there is some primal recognition of the configuration of eyes and nose – and the water outlet was a particularly fine nose.

Undeterred, I continued to love her deeply. Within weeks, she realized the bath set was unresponsive and switched all her gurgles and burbles to the people who truly loved her. joinoz

This all depends on what love is meant to constitute. If love is seen as a gist of fullness, happiness, satiation or bliss, then the answer is perhaps “before we even see the baby” ie pre-birth. The older the baby is, the more expressive their response to care becomes, from a blissful sleep, a calm face, a warm smile, excitement reaching the stage where the child is capable of expressing gratitude verbally.

However, well-rehearsed phrases of gratitude, warmth or love are not to be mistaken for love, but more as an expression of feeling loved and wanted. Freud called the “self-serving” prince/ss “His Majesty the Baby”, denoting the child’s focus on gain rather than giving and perhaps explaining the cheekiness in their pursuit of material and emotional rewards by expressing loving words and gestures. In other words, it’s all about them even when it seems about the other.

The decisive point, in my opinion, that transcends the experience of the child’s apparent expression of love to a real love is when the child is able to put themselves in the other’s shoes. This is called the theory of mind and it’s a pivotal developmental stage, as it enables the child to appreciate the other’s perspective. The baby realizes that their hugs make mummy and daddy happy – just like theirs do to him/her – and starts to give them freely and generously. The aim could be said here to be reciprocal, ie “I make my parent happy and I become happy, too”. This is the point when the child feels empathy and responds by attempting to console the sad or distressed parent. Most parents are able to identify the change in the quality of tenderness offered by the child. This developmental landmark emerges between the age of three and a half and five. Dr. Hosam Elhamoui

A baby feels love, but doesn’t know it. I’m coming round to thinking we only realize our love for our parents once we lose them. Is this pessimistic? I don’t think so. We take our parents for granted, which is a kind of love. I felt the full force of my love for my parents when I lost them. Mega Barross

Love is not a fixed thing. There are all sorts of different definitions – familial, religious, spiritual, sexual and, perhaps most dangerously, the love of a homeland. These things can be felt ardently or hardly at all. Selflessness is possibly the one condition common to all aspects of love. Children learn the value of that at a very young age, although there will always be an internal battle between self interest and a desire to put others first. Romantic love may actually be the most self-serving of all forms of love, since its evolution is intimately tied to the preservation of our own unique genetic information. thegreatfatsby

My understanding of love is that it’s the name we give to the emotion of a bond with another, dependence on them, appreciation of their presence and feeling of loss if they are gone. Surely, then, most humans are born with this ability, their first relationship being with their mother and expanding out from there. I certainly felt that my children loved me from the day they were born. Possibly projection, but the instinct was powerful. neeny

I’d say that the age depends on the definition of love that you choose. To an infant, yes, a very early love can mean a vague awareness of and emotional attachment to the caring humans who it senses are the source of its warmth and security.

To a teenager, a different and powerful sort of love means sexual awakening combined with romantic idealization of the unattainable object of desire.

To many an older person experienced in matters of the heart, I’m told, late-flowering love means a hard-earned, treasured sense of mutual understanding and deep affection, manifested in companionship and empathy born of shared experience.

Whereas, to a tennis player, love means nothing. ThereisnoOwl

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