Last week I read the story Love, Z by Jessie Sima with a group of 9-11 year olds. The story is about a young robot, Z, who finds a bottle with a message inside that is indecipherable except for two words: “Love, Beatrice.”

Z wonders what love means. The robot asks all the other robots, but they do not know. So Z sets off to look for Beatrice, asking everyone the robot meets if they are Beatrice and whether they know the meaning of love. Everyone has a different answer. 

Z ends up at the house of a woman named Beatrice. Asked what love is, Beatrice responds that love is hard to explain, but it is “warm and cozy and safe. You’ll know it when you feel it.” The robot hopes she is right. 

That evening, the other robots show up at Beatrice’s house because they were worried about Z. They have brought Z’s favorite bedtime story, night-light, and a good night kiss. As Z is falling asleep, the feeling inside the young robot is familiar. But now “it had a name.” 

Before I read the story to the children, I asked them what they think of when they hear the word “love.” Their responses included: family, food, hearts, hugs, trust, caring, happiness, stuffs, and pets.

After reading the story, I asked the students to consider what they would say if Z asked them, “What is love?” They went into breakout rooms in small groups and came back after about 10 minutes for a larger group discussion.

One group said that they concluded that what love means differs for every person.

“You can’t really define love as one thing because for one person it can be completely different than to another person. For example, one person might say ‘love for me is family and friends’ while for another person it might be ‘love is trusting.’ It’s like a human trait that you can’t really define, a feeling, sort of, and love falls into that.”

“Love is not defined into a particular word or a sentence. It really depends on your personality and who you are and kind of what you believe in. For one person, it might be food, and for another it might be stories from your parents at night, or for another it might actually be the moments with your parents and the moments with your siblings. So it really depends on who you are.”

Another student described love as involving what you like, so that you feel happy. “Love can be an upscaled like,” suggested one child.

“Love is kind of like the whole entire world. Most of the time if anything in the world happens and there’s something or someone you really love, even if something really bad happens, nothing will change in the relationship.”

This led to a conversation about what events might lead love to change or end. If someone you love does something really terrible (starting a nuclear war, one student offered as an example), that might change how you feel about the person. 

One student noted, “We all have different definitions of love and what it means to us.”

I observed that we had been talking about love in two different ways: examples of love or ways you can show or experience love, and how you define love. Is every definition of love equally good? Or are there some definitions of love that are not as good as others?

“I think there could be better definitions for love and worse definitions of love. For a definition of love, a bad example would be food. You might love food, but what really is love to you?”

This led to an exchange about whether you can love food, with one student stating, “It’s not just eating things or tasting things, it’s the experience that comes along with it. Eating with your family or talking with your friends. Also food tastes good, but there’s more to it than just the actions, it’s what happens with what you’re doing.”

“Food is a good example of love because people work hard to make the food that you’re eating. If you’re just talking about throw it in the microwave, turn it on, or something really super easy to make, it’s not really that. It’s the flavor, the flavor brings joy and you can love that flavor and then later you can crave more of it and it gives you a reason to come back. Kind of like when you miss your family, most of the time you know you can come back.”

“Love is a question you can’t be wrong or right about it. It’s what you think about it. You can describe love in different ways, there’s not just one answer like a math problem. There’s multiple answers to it.”

Jana Mohr Lone is the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and her most recent book is Seen and Not Heard.

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Really love the article. It’s one of the first things I read in the morning and felt really refreshed. It’s also wonderful to see the profound insights students have come up with.