On a recent trip home from North Carolina, I picked up a small gift for family members who were dog sitting for the week. The small black and tan plaque read: “Money can buy you a fine dog, but only love will make the tail wag.”
It was perfect for them, because they love our dog, and our dog knows it. Like a sullen child being dragged home after a weekend at her grandparents’ house, our dog is obviously missing the attention she received while we were away – the long walks, free-time for ecstatic runs in a fenced-off area, new toys and new humans to play with her. Back home, she seems to be wandering around the house looking for them, and her tail is not wagging as much as usual.
While I was wrapping this small thank-you gift, I was reminded of an exchange I had with my six-year old granddaughter just a day earlier as she was buckling herself in to her car seat before our drive to school.
I was checking to make sure all the buckles were secure and she was looking directly in my face and rubbing her fingers up and down my arm.
“You are the best abuela ever,” she said. I chuckled to myself, thinking of all the times during the past week when I had corrected her or yelled at her for something. I asked her, “Why?”
“Because you love me so much,” she said simply.
I touched her cheek and kissed her outstretched hand and assured her she was absolutely right.
As we drove to school, she spent the ride singing a song about the seashells she had collected on the beach, and I reflected on how this child of six had come to the very certain conclusion that I loved her more than anybody else loved her, except, she had clarified, “mommy and daddy.”
How do children learn at such a young age what love looks like, what love does? Is it possible for them because they have not yet become jaded, or added the “ifs, buts, and should haves,” as addendums to their experiences of love?
We underestimate children, their powers of observation, their deep spirituality, their ability to grasp profound concepts, their own innate ability to love deeply.
If you ask a very young child what love is, their responses are enlightening – a favorite stuffed animal, a heart, the sun – but a year or two later their insights become more powerful: "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."
One of my favorite authors and TV personalities, Leo Buscaglia, once shared a story about a contest he was asked to judge to find the most caring child. As the story goes, a four-year-old child had a next door neighbor who was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's' yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy just said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”
Before his death in 1988, Dr. Buscaglia wrote 15 books about love, five of which were once on the New York Times best-seller list at the same time. I discovered only recently that Dr. Buscaglia’s passion for sharing love with the world stemmed from a tragedy.
While a university professor, one of Dr. Buscaglia’s students committed suicide. Distraught over the loss, Dr. Buscaglia began teaching an unofficial, noncredit course on life that he called Love 1. More than 600 students signed up for this course, when only 50 were expected.
We have a responsibility to children, not to be perfect but to be present, to teach them to live a life that will likely be both full of joy and full of pain, to make sure that if someone asks them, “What is love?,” they will know how to answer.
"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen." ~ Bobby, age 7
James Barker photo on Unsplash