Love Is a Verb
Kristie Robin Johnson
One of the great things about being a parent is that you often get the opportunity to experience the world through much younger eyes. This near-constant exposure to a perspective, often radically different from your own, has the power to soften your heart, startle your reality, and change you forever. A few years ago I learned some critical lessons about myself and my failed marriage while looking at the world through the eyes of my then eight-year-old son.
Since my divorce had been final, I’d essentially become a single working mom. And sometimes when you’re a lower middle class single parent worker, your kid ends up at work with you. This usually happens because you cannot afford to take the time off of work or you cannot afford to hire a babysitter or both. I happened to find myself in this exact situation because my son had the day off from school and I still had to work. This particular workday was unique in terms of days at the office. My institution was hosting a career fair and we had a ton of visitors on the campus. As I was helping employers tear down their stations and thanking them for participating, one of the male employers noticed my son in tow. He then proceeded to ask the age-old questions that an adult asks a child when they meet them– “how old are you?” and “what’s your name?” My son answers appropriately in turn. Next is the tricky part of the exchange. The kid is now blankly staring at the adult wondering the point of it all and the adult is trying to think of something clever to say. This particular gentleman, on this particular day, followed up by choosing to ask my son a question to which he clearly already knew the answer. “Is this your mom?” My son, now suspicious because the stranger is asking useless questions, politely answers “Yes sir.” The employer then replied, “Well, you have a very pretty mom.” I think my son and I both were taken aback by the stranger’s forwardness. I have to admit that I was truly flattered; but my son was, for the first time in the conversation, genuinely stumped. He gave the man a very confused look. I implored my son to say “thank you”. I said “thank you” as well. We went on with our day.
I didn’t think much about the exchange with the employer until about an hour later when one of my interns started to engage my kid in the same classic adult-child Q and A session. It began basically the same at first, they exchanged pleasantries, confirmed the name and age, and then there was the dreaded third question. This time my intern said to my son “You know your mom is a real important lady around here. Aren’t you so proud of her?” Again, my kid blanks out. He isn’t sure what to say or how to answer. It didn’t dawn on me until later that day, but I think I know exactly why my son had trouble coming up with replies when a person very openly offered me a compliment.
A child learns behaviors by being exposed to behaviors. It occurred to me that my eight year old hadn’t really been exposed to situations in which people said nice things to me. He didn’t spend a lot of time around my co-workers or friends prior to the divorce. All of my immediate family members are either dead or live hours away. And (this is probably the harshest reality), my ex-husband is a chronic criticizer. I could count the times on one hand that he had overtly complimented me (or anybody else for that matter) in the presence of our children. His mother had been the same way. So, it was indeed odd for my second-born to hear multiple people say nice things about me. It’s not a habit that he ever had a chance to develop. First, I was sad that my son didn’t see me as attractive or accomplished. Then I was happy because I realized that I had the chance to change his experience.
I am a firm believer that kids need to see love as much as they need to feel loved. When parents are genuinely good to each other– treat each other with respect, pay compliments to one another, show sensitivity to each other’s feelings– they are modeling love for their sons and daughters. They are showing their children what it looks like to love another person. Just like any other human behavior, youngsters will absorb this and repeat it. It’s precisely for this reason that, when I am lucky enough to meet the man who deserves me, I will make every conscious effort to show him and my sons what love looks like in action. And he will do the same for me.