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Will you marry me? What’s really behind preschool proposals

When your 4-year-old pops the question
WATCH ABOVE: Some parents struggle with how to handle pre-school marriage proposals. Clinical counsellor Deborah MacNamara reveals the meaning behind the question and gives advice on how to respond. Laurel Gregory reports.

“I want to marry you.”

My three-year-old-son gazed up with a shy smile as he professed his love to me from the backseat of the car.

“Awww,” I replied. The tears began to well up in my eyes until the touching moment was interrupted by my nattering mind: Cute, but where did that come from? Does this mean he loves me more than the rest of the family? Is this the beginning of some sort of icky Oedipus complex?

I sat dumbfounded and sputtered out, “Lucky me!” and then blurted, “But what about Daddy?”

Looking back, I’m amused by my response. Trust a grown-up to deconstruct a pure, innocent sentiment. I also shouldn’t have felt bad for Daddy because his proposal would come in a matter of weeks.

In her blog, “My preschooler wants to marry me – should I say yes?,” clinical counsellor Deborah MacNamara says parents need only say “yes” in these situations. I sat down with her to chat about what’s behind young children’s wish to marry mom, dad or any other family member.

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Laurel Gregory: Around what age does this question seem to pop up for kids and why?

Deborah MacNamara: Children around the age of four to five — approximately — and later, can ask the most endearing questions of us. The question being, “Can I marry you? I’m going to live with you forever.” It’s a beautiful question. We need not be alarmed by it. When a child is four or five and everything is going well in their life, ideally, they are falling into relationships with their adults. The heart is opening up. You see this incredible warmth and capacity for increased caring happen. They’re becoming much more of a relational being.

They will — out of this place — naturally want to stay close to their attachments, and when they look around, one of the ways that we do that is through marriage. So, it doesn’t seem uncommon that they start asking people in their house to marry them.

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My own nephew, my youngest nephew, he would go around and he would take people’s heads and he would bonk them on the head and say, “We’re married! We’re married!” He would go through the whole family. He even married the dog. And he saved his best proposal for his father: “Daddy I love you SO MUCH! Will you marry me?”

When you think about nature’s intentions for us and raising children, who should children give their heart to first of all? Wouldn’t that make sense that they would give it to us, the people that have to go the longest journey in taking care of them? And as they give their heart to us, our heart continues to expand so that we can do this dance of relationship for the long term. It’s nature’s answer to place our children’s hearts into our care. And this is what happens between the ages of four to five.

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So you don’t need to [say] “yes” to marriage and started planning when and where this will happen. All you need to do is say, “Yes, I am yours forever” [or] “Yes, you are in my heart” [or] “Yes, nothing will ever separate us. There will never be a day that you won’t feel my love.” And that is the answer that they are seeking.

LG: My son was around three and a half when he started saying that to me, to Nana, to auntie — and my first reaction was, “But what about Daddy? I’m already married!” Then I read your blog and felt like crying thinking about how I responded to it. Do you think parents just don’t realize the emotional weight of that question?

DM: No, I don’t think we see it coming with that question. As adults, we think so much on the concrete realm. It’s always very concrete to us and very logical. Preschoolers are not. They are abstract. They live in their own world that they create. They don’t see the whole picture. So their expressions of their emotion is usually just taking on the shape and form of what they see in the outside world. They’re not programmed to say, “Mommy, I’ve appreciated all your caretaking for the last four years. Thank you so much. I just want to tell you that your caretaking has opened up my limbic system and now I’m giving my heart to you. (laughs) They look around and say, “How do I express love? I’m going to marry you!”

LG: You’ve written that this is their first foray into emotional intimacy. Can you explain that?

DM: When the child starts to give their heart to people and things… what happens is they are developing a deeper sense of caring and what it means to care. It unlocks a sense of responsibility in their caring, like to take good care of things, to show consideration to things. It’s setting you up to be more mature as a caretaker. When you get to be around six years of age, you really are capable of taking care of other people, of showing up to take responsibility… Emotional intimacy is really the unlocking of this incredible capacity, now that you have many years under your belt of being cared for. This is more robust, more coherent and the child is showing up more now as a caring being in the world and can do more wonderful things with that caring.

It’s a beautiful sign of healthy development that we should absolutely celebrate. Keep every piece of artwork and papers and everything you will get at this age demonstrating how much they have fallen in love with you. It’s like tasting ice cream for the first time and wondering, “Where has this been?”

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LG: Where do our reservations come from?

DM: In North America, I think that worry comes from [the idea that] if they attach deeply to us, they are never going to leave [and] they are never going to grow up [and] they are never going to become their own individual person. We are sort of under the assumption that you have to hurry them out, push them out to do their own thing — “You can do it yourself, come on. What do you think?” We ask them far too many questions. We hurry them along. What happens is it actually makes our child cling to us out of insecurity. What you actually see with development is the more the child can lean into your care, the more they can take it for granted [and] the more they feel a generous invitation. It’s like a buffet. You don’t have to eat as much when there’s buffet there. You can rest in the care that there is more than you need. What it allows you to do is to feel full. When you feel full, and you feel satiated and cared for, then you’re like, “Alright, I’m going to go play!” Because that is where children grow into their own separate individual beings — who they are… What paralyzes us as parents is we think that they should be looking more mature than they should be at these ages. And when they don’t seem to be as mature as we think they should be, we try to hurry it along or give them choices as if these things grow you up.

LG: So you just go for it then: “You have my heart forever.”

DM: What we want to do when children give their hearts to us is we just want to reaffirm that they have our hearts too. Their heart is in our safekeeping. What a gift! What a gift to be given your child’s heart.

My four-year-old son hasn’t talked about his marriage proposal to me much in the past year, but it appears I am no longer the object of his affection. He recently told me he wants to live in a condo beside grandma with his kindergarten friend Emily. But this time, as my mind starting to work out the unreasonable logistics, I ignored the nattering.

“That sounds like a perfect plan Sweetie.”