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“You know, I don’t love children.”

I said it in the staffroom the other day. Out loud.

My comment was met with shocked looks. Some things, it seems, shouldn’t be verbalised.

“Well you’re in the wrong profession!” was the called-for response and several people made it. 

I don’t see what’s so shocking about not loving children. Is there any other age bracket that people will claim to love indiscriminately? Perhaps someone might patronisingly say it of the elderly – someone whose knowledge of this age group is limited to fondly vague memories of a grandmother. But if someone said ‘I just love 35-45 year olds’ I’d think them strangely naïve. Or just stupid. Do they not know that Hitler was forty once? And do I want to be loved by someone who finds all people my age delightful? 

I don’t love children. 

The 24 five year old faces in front of me don’t melt my heart. I don’t ‘just want to hug them.’ Aleesha hasn’t stopped scratching her head since she sat down on the carpet. Anndrew (yes, two Ns) keeps ripping the velcro on his new ninja turtle joggers. Bandit is sitting with his back to me and won’t turn around. I don’t know how to pronounce the blonde boy’s name. I’ve asked his mum twice already. Can I ask again? 

I don’t love these children. I want last year’s class back (except for Reignbeau.) 

A woman in the supermarket was all gush when she heard that I was a teacher. “Oh you must adore the kids,” she said. “I just love children. All of them!” 

But I don’t. How can I? I don’t know all children. 

Real love is a particular thing. It needs to be directed towards a specific person and based on a knowledge of that person. Without knowledge it is mere sentiment. Like the teenage girl who falls in love with a boy she’s not yet met. It’s an imaginary love. An infatuation. When we’re infatuated, we project onto our object the charms we find desirable. We create an idealised form of them which often bears little resemblance to the real person that they are. 

Consider the man who claims to ‘love women’. Such a man will generally have a love for womankind that goes no further than her body parts. When confronted with a real woman, endowed with a personality and preferences and history and opinions, he will commonly find that he hates her because her existence challenges his ideal of womanhood. 

I love my own children. Wildly. Unreservedly. I love them for their personalities, their talents, their quirks. I love them for the affection that they show me, for the way they reflect back to me myself and my family, my husband and his family and the wonder of our combined genes. I love them for how they rise above both my husband and I and become their own glorious selves. I love them because of the last decade and a half that we’ve spent together and all that’s passed between us. 

If love is to be real, it must grow out of knowledge. This will take time. 

If I claim to love a class full of children that I don’t yet know, I am doing the real, live children in front of me a disservice. My ‘love’ will be for an idealised form of childhood, for a cardboard cut-out child who is perhaps small, innocent, compliant, cute, eager to learn, and needy enough to boost my ego but not so needy that she is annoying. When I am confronted with all the complexities of a real girl or boy, my infatuation with my cardboard child will get in the way of the patience and diligence and professional skill that I’ll need to use if I’m to make a difference in the life of a real child. 

So I’m fine with not ‘loving children’ – and I think that my colleagues are too. We can leave sentimentality to people outside our profession and get on with the job we need to do. But right now, 24 little faces look up at me (actually, 23. Bandit is still facing the other way.) I don’t love children in the abstract but in the coming weeks and months I’ll get to know these children. I’ll learn to see past their head lice and ridiculous names. Over time I’ll understand their individual passions and interests. I’ll see the creases in their foreheads and the set of their eyes that show me they’re thinking. I’ll teach them. I’ll find some of them funny, some interesting, some sweet and some intriguing. I’ll tell them about my kids and my dogs. We’ll laugh together. 

I don’t love children, but as the year progresses, I’m looking forward to coming to love these children. And that’s infinitely better.