Loving by Transitivity

I was talking with a friend about her son and his experience in first grade. First grade has been a bit of a beast for their family this year, not so much academically but in growing into new phases and encountering new attitudes in their once curious and sweetly obedient little boy. But another element of challenge this year has been my friend’s feelings toward her son’s teacher.

“It’s not that I don’t like her exactly. Academically things are going great. And she has impressive control of the classroom. It’s just. . . “ and it was clear that for as many logical reasons she could list for why her son’s first grade teacher was perfectly fine, there were just as many why she kind of wished he had ended up in someone else’s class. “But he likes her,” my friend concluded, “so, you know.”
Yeah, I knew.

One of the challenges of parenting is learning to love the people your kids love because, well, because your kids love them. It’s the challenge of loving by transitivity.

Our conversation made me think of the times I’ve had to swallow my own discomfort, my own biases, my own preferences so I could encourage my kids to honor, respect and yes, even love some people in their lives that I did not personally find very lovable. You mean my kids aren’t always going to share my tastes? You mean there will be people who are meaningful to them who do not especially appeal to me? You mean as much as I would love to orchestrate this relationship over here or establish a close connection over there, I don’t ultimately get to decide who will be my kids’ closest friends or mentors?

Learning to love for the sake of someone else is a whole new skill for some of us. Sometimes it’s all a momma can do to hold her tongue when that teacher, that friend, that babysitter occupies a special place in the heart of her child.

Ever been there?

I remember one my first experiences with this uncomfortable feeling. I remember the anger I felt toward one of Gabriel’s neighborhood buddies when he snubbed my son in favor of going home to play video games. The boys were only four or five years old at the time, but the pain and anger that pierced my heart as my son sobbed into my shoulder was certainly no preschool-sized emotion. “Why doesn’t he want to play with me Mommy? Why does he want video games more than me?” The questions raised such strong ire in me—toward another preschool-aged boy nonetheless—that it nearly took my breath away.

It didn’t take long for Gabriel to either forget or forgive the transgression, but I wasn’t able to dismiss the experience so handily. My son had been hurt at the hands of another. My mother bear instincts were on high alert. But the fact was, my son still loved his little friend—loved him as much as he ever had—and I had to love him again too. It was hard. It felt embarrassing how hard it was. But it was important.

To love those whom our children love—that’s important.

When I think back to my own childhood and the people I gravitated toward, decades of perspective give me a clarity I could not have had back then. I don’t recall any particularly shady characters, but I am sure there were friends of mine, or older kids I admired, whom my parents likely would have happily replaced with others of their own choosing. I’m so glad they never tried. Now that I’m a parent I see how tempting it must have been at times. But I suppose part of what helps me understand the importance of transitive love is the transformative love brought to life in me when I became a parent to begin with.

Loving my kids means putting their best interests ahead of my own, no matter what the circumstance, no matter how bitter the pill tastes going down. And you never know—with all this transitive love, I may just learn there are more appealing people out there than I ever imagined before. Perhaps if I learnt to see through my children’s eyes, what starts out as tolerance may actually grow to genuine affection or admiration. I believe it can happen. At least I’m willing to take the chance.