There's a very thin line between being thrilled and being terrified, and Candice Feiring saw both emotions on her son's face. The sixth-grader had just gotten off the phone with a girl in his class who called to ask if he'd like to go to the movies--just the two of them. It sounded a whole lot like a date to him. "Don't I have something to do tomorrow?" he asked his mother. A psychologist and an editor of The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence, Feiring was uniquely prepared to field that question and give her son the answer that, for now, he needed. "I think you're too young to go out one-on-one," she said. His face broke into a relieved grin.
A year later, even a month later, Feiring's adolescent son might have reacted very differently to being told he was not ready to date. That moment-to-moment mutability of his interest in--never mind his readiness for--courtship is only one tiny part of the exhilarating, exhausting, confounding path all humans travel as they make their halting way into the world of love. From the moment we're born--when the world is mostly sensation, and nothing much matters beyond a full belly, a warm embrace and a clean diaper--until we finally emerge into adulthood and understand the rich mix of tactile, sexual and emotional experiences that come with loving another adult, we are in a constant state of learning and rehearsing. Along with language, romance may be one of the hardest skills we'll ever be called on to acquire. But while we're more or less fluent in speech by the time we're 5, romance takes a lot longer. Most Western romance research involves Western cultures, where things may move at a very different pace from that of, say, the Far East or the Muslim world. While not all of the studies yield universal truths, they all suggest that people are wired to pick up their love skills in very specific stages.
Infancy and Babyhood
Babies may not have much to do rightÂ after they're born, but the stakes are vitally high that they do it right. One of the first skills newborns must learn is how to woo the adults in their world. "For a baby, literally you're going to be dead without love, so getting people around you to love you is a really good strategy," says Alison Gopnik, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Babies do this much the way adults do: by flirting. Within a couple of months, infants may move and coo, bob and blink in concert with anyone who's paying attention to them. Smiling is a critical and cleverly timed part of this phase. Babies usually manage a first smile by the time they're 6 weeks old, which, coincidentally or not, is about the time the novelty of a newborn has worn off and sleep-deprived parents are craving some peace. A smile can be a powerful way to win them back.
Even before we know how to turn on the charm, touch and chemistry are bonding us firmly to our parents--and bonding them to us. Oxytocin--a hormone sometimes called the cuddle chemical--surges in new mothers and, to a lesser extent, in new fathers, making their baby instantly irresistible to them. One thing grownups particularly can't resist doing is picking a baby up, and that too is a key to survival. "Babies need physical contact with human hands to grow and thrive," says Lisa Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Utah. Years of data have shown that premature babies who are regularly touched fare much better than those who aren't.
As babies seduce and adults respond, a sophisticated dynamic develops. Mothers learn to synch their behavior with their newborn's, so that they offer a smile when their baby smiles, food when their baby's hungry. That's a pleasingly reciprocal deal, and while adults are already aware that when you give pleasure and comfort, you get it in return, it's news for the baby. "Babies are building up ideas about how close relationships work," says Gopnik.
Toddlerhood and Preschool
When kids reach 2, mom and dad aren't paying quite the same attention they used to. You feed yourself, you play on your own, you get held less often. That's not to say you need your parents less--and you're not shy about letting them know it. Children from ages 2 to 5 have yet to develop what's known as a theory of mind--the understanding that other people have hidden thoughts that are different from yours and that you can conceal your thoughts too. Without that knowledge, kids conceal nothing. "They love you," says Gopnik, "and they really, really express it."
At the same time, kids are learning something about sensual pleasures. They explore their bodies more, discovering that certain areas yield more electrifying feelings than others. This simultaneous emotional development and physical experience can lead to surprising behavior. "Three- and 4-year-olds are very sexual beings," says Gopnik, "and a lot of that is directed at their parents." Some of this can get generalized to other adults too, as when a small child develops a crush on a teacher or seems to flirt with an aunt or uncle. While a number of things are at work when this happens, the most important is playacting and the valuable rehearsal for later life it provides. "Kids are trying to play out a set of roles and be more like adults," says psychologist Andrew Collins of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.
The same kind of training behavior can show up with playmates and friends, often accompanied by unexpectedly powerful feelings. Social psychologist Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii is best known for co-creating the Passionate Love Scale, a questionnaire with which she can gauge feelings of romantic connectedness in adults. She has modified the test to elicit similar information from children. In early work, she studied 114 boys and 122 girls, some as young as 4, presenting them with statements like "I am always thinking about _____" or "I would rather be with _____ than anybody else." The kids filled in the name of someone they loved, and Hatfield asked them to rate the intensity of feelings with stacks of checkers: the higher the stack, the more they felt. In some instances, the kids became overwhelmed with emotion, as in the case of a 5-year-old girl who wept at the thought of a boy she would never see again. "Little kids fall in love too," Hatfield says plainly.
School Age and Puberty