My boys are very different from each other, as first- and second-borns tend to be. Ben wears his heart on his sleeve; if he's not sharing every thought going through his mind with me, I overhear him talking them over with himself. Jacob, though, is a different bird. He will talk endlessly (and sometimes relentlessly) about the outside world: what he has built with his LEGOs today, what it does, who drives it, its mission, and so on. Or he will go on about an historical figure he's read about or learned about in school, right down to the person's hobbies and habits. But he never talks about himself.
This can be easy to overlook. Two busy boys, a husband and a dog require a lot of organizing and generate a lot of noise. When the chatter finally ceases, I am the first to grasp at that moment of silence and claim it for myself for as long as possible. But this can be a mistake, and here's why I think so: this week a 14-year-old boy from my county stepped in front of a train. He was not a loner; he had many friends and admirers who described him as funny, happy, kind. He lived in one of the most affluent towns in this area and attended one of the best schools. But he never told anyone he was despondent. Why? Did he think his family was too busy to listen? Did he not want to bring his friends down? Was he afraid no one could understand or help? Maybe no one ever asked.
It would be very easy for me to tell myself that Jacob is only 8, that his problems are not so big that he can't work them out, that he's a smart, happy kid who would tell me if something was wrong and he needed some input. But I'd be wrong. Tucking him in the other night, I started asking him about his friends, his day, his thoughts and was surprised when he became very upset, his voice between anger and tears, and he burst with a flood of emotional turmoil. "Susan told me that John was telling everyone on the bus that I'm a nerd on the day I wasn't there. Now if I have to get braces, combined with my glasses, I'm going to be the biggest nerd in school!" Whoa.
It's already starting, the stress and worries, and it seemed clear that this was something that had been stewing inside of him for some time. So he talked, and I listened. We considered, we brainstormed. Whether he was happy with the conversation's outcome, I don't know. Whether our ideas put his mind at ease, I'm not sure. But I got a huge hug, kiss and "I love you" before I left the room, and that speaks volumes.
My kids usually tell me they love me spontaneously, when we're doing something fun or silly, bizarre or unexpected (things that are very unlike my usual way of operating). My guess is these are the times when they feel the most relaxed. They are happy to be with me and see my human side for a change. I think these moments convince them that I'm not just a farty old disciplinarian; that I really do love them. That's what I think asking, and listening, did for Jacob. Yes, he may have problems to work through, and I might not have all the answers. But while he may be reluctant to bring them up, I care enough about him to ask. And regardless of what other people think of him, I will always love AND like him. He needs to know this. All of our children do.
While raising children is a big job, it's not just about feeding their faces, paying the bills and cleaning their clothes and the house. It's about filling an emotional need in them that no one but a parent can fill, and letting them know often that we care about them, in as many ways as possible. Cuddle them, read to them, tickle them, tell them jokes, play games with them and listen to them. It seems like such a little thing, a non-productive thing (but I've got to start dinner/walk the dog/rake the yard/call the plumber). But it is critical to them. It adds another layer to the bond between parent and child, ultimately proving to them that--no matter what--they can rely on its strength, and on us, to weather whatever may come.
By the time they are teens, our children will be listening more to their friends than to us. If we want them to know then that we are always here for them, we need to start showing them now. And if we repeat it often enough, by the time it really matters, they'll know it without asking.