When a kid says I miss you, how do you know if he really means it?

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Every night before dinner we say a short grace: “God bless this food, and the hands that prepared it, and let us be ever mindful of the needs of others.” The only variation comes on days when either Caroline or I is away. “And please bring Mama home safely,” we add. “And thank you for bringing Mama home safely,” we say when she’s back.

At the end of August I flew to Boston for a wedding. I was gone just one night, and my first evening back, Wally concluded grace by noting he was grateful I’d come home safely. That was nearly a month ago, but Wally continues with his expressions of gratitude. A few times a week we finish grace and reach for our forks. Wally goes on. “Thank you for bringing Daddy back safely,” he says, even though home is the only place I’ve been these last four weeks.

I haven’t really known what to make of Wally’s ongoing prayers. I’m flattered, of course, that my absence for a single night is enough to inaugurate a month of thanksgiving, but mostly I don’t think Wally means what he says. He often apes the way we talk, like he did over the summer with his unintentionally parodic imitation of Jay’s “What has more horsepower, a motorboat or a dinghy?” style of speech. So, when Wally prays for me long after the transaction is complete, I assume he’s mostly just following a speech pattern that he associates with a touch of solemnity, rather than giving voice to an actual feeling he has inside himself.

Last Friday Caroline and I had a meeting with Wally’s teacher. She said Wally is cheery and chatty in the classroom, and told us a few stories that made us feel like she’s been paying attention to who he is. She relayed one interaction he’d had recently with a classmate named Nai’el. Nai’el told Wally, “I have an apostrophe in my name.” Wally told Nai’el, “I have a brother.” That sounded about right.

Wally’s teacher also mentioned that he chats with her often about his family. She asked me if I’d been away on a trip recently. I had to think for a second, then said, no, I hadn’t really gone anywhere. She said, well, Wally tells me often, “My daddy went on a trip. I don’t like it when he goes away.”

Oh, I thought.

It’s hard to tell when kids really mean what they say. In the span of three minutes Wally will be hellbent against going outside to play, then all of a sudden that will be the only thing he wants to do. A transcript of his day is full of silliness, non-sequiters, half-conceived ideas, comical misunderstandings, and occasional moments of startlingly clear expression. Amid all that noise, it’s hard to sift out his real convictions.

But hearing that my 24-hour absence bubbles up at more than one point in Wally’s day made me think maybe there is something to it. Maybe he is capable of sustaining attention to a feeling for more than a month.

I had this newfound appreciation for the depth of kids’ emotions in mind this morning as Jay and I were getting ready to leave for school. He was retrieving his lunchbox from the kitchen counter when, apropos of absolutely nothing, he told me, “I don’t love you when you get mad at me.” I froze stiff. Then I quickly reassured myself. Surely, I thought, he’s just parroting something he heard on the playground.

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One thought on “When a kid says I miss you, how do you know if he really means it?

  1. Although not central to your theme, the anecdote in which Na’iel told Wally, “I have an apostrophe in my name.” And Wally told Nai’el, “I have a brother.”, reminds me of the impact of being the younger sibling. A younger brother is writing his autobiography for a second grade assignment. It’s first line is “My big sister’s name is Emily.”

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