“Being a parent is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Despite not knowing the origin of that phrase, I’ve heard it enough in the last two and a half years of parenting to know it’s an accurate analogy and feeling. Vulnerable. Exposed. Raw. Most of the time, it’s as if my heart constantly wears a grin. Other times, it turns a blush red, wanting to hide out of embarrassment. And then there are the inevitable, excruciating moments that immediately trigger the tug, pull, and rip. And my tear ducts well up, taking only a second till those drops trickle down my cheeks.
Some of the most valuable gifts Brennan has received in his two and a half years of life are older friends who include him, play well with him, and enjoy being his buddy. They each have been a great example of how to joyfully include younger playmates. We’ve also stepped foot in a home where an eleven year old took it upon himself to play with Brennan, not forcefully put upon him by his mother, but out of a deliberate choice to welcome my son. And may I suggest it was an attribute molded in part by his parents who encouraged sensitivity to others and inclusion. The exhilaration that exudes from Brennan when he can work his way into playing with older kids, particularly older boys who happily include him, sparks the grin on my exterior heart.
In recent weeks, there have been two occasions where Brennan has developed a new facial expression based upon his environment. In watchfulness with hopefully accurate discernment, I think I pinpointed the reason for this distinct look that is accompanied by shrugged shoulders, eyes fixed to the ground, a somber frown of disappointment, and a deep sigh. It’s my son’s sign of feeling excluded, forlorn, unable to break into a game of play with kids he’s specifically selected to be the ones with whom he wants to run around.
One particular incident to which I’m referring is actually no deliberate or hurtful fault of the three older boys Brennan desperately and repeatedly tried to engage. The boys ranged in age from three to seven, all brothers, completely engrossed in running around and chasing each other. They were mesmerized in their own fun, oblivious to the younger one trying to keep up. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Each time Brennan would spot the boys coming around the corner, he’d take off again, smiling, trying his very best to get their attention. Each failed attempt, he’d walk back to me with that new look of dejection.
Insert: teachable moment.
We talked about what a blessing his older friends, like Evan & Harrison, have been to include him, mindful of his feelings and kindly play with him. We chatted a bit about him having eyes to see others around him who need a friend and how we always want to include others, no matter the differences, making them feel welcomed and valued. He can put into practice what he’s learned from his good, older buddies.
He went about playing again, once again trying to keep up with the three boys. At the same time, there was a girl, age six or so, who sadly walked up to her momma sitting behind me and said, “The girl I was playing with left. I need someone to play with.” Her momma sent her on her way, and despondently, she continued to scope out the playground for ten minutes, trying to find a new playmate.
My boy returned to our table after another fizzled attempt to play with the big boys. I reiterated my earlier schpeal, knowing that I verbally (and in writing, my dear readers) can be too verbose. So I thought another attempt at talking about these points as best I could at a two year old level wouldn’t hurt. Lastly, I pointed to the six year old girl also looking for a playmate. “See that little girl? She’s looking for a friend to play with, too. You should ask her if she wants to play with you. See how you can include her.”
He scampered off toward her and in his two-year old language, mumbled something to the girl. Off they went, the girl quickly climbing up the playscape with Brennan in tow. He was smiling, and I wore the grin, on my face and on my heart. She blazed down the playscape as quickly as she went up, turned back to look at Brennan who was still following her, and she bee-lined it to her mother. I was not prepared for the piercing conversation between the girl and her mother that ensued. “That little boy keeps chasing me.” To which her mother replied, “Well, he wants to play with you.” And out of those young lips came the deafening words, “But I don’t want to play with him.”
Cue the tug. The pull. The rip. The tears. A giggle was the mother’s only response. Thankfully, Brennan was still paces away and wasn’t in earshot. While I tried to compose myself, grateful my back was to the momma and the girl, I grabbed Brennan and gave him an extra squeeze, affirming his decision to bravely walk over to the girl and ask her to play with him, doing so quietly as I didn’t want to cause any further offense, and well, I was choked up.
In that teachable moment, I realized how much those purposeful bits of time aren’t just about talking but doing, putting them into action. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the potentially painful lessons to start so early. And despite any desire to shield my children from people’s arrows, intentional or not, teaching him to wear a silver-plated breastplate to cover his heart isn’t the remedy. I’d much rather have my son soft-hearted and teachable, his thoughts bent on others’ needs, with hands and feet swift to act in love. Now if only I can remain courageous to wear my exposed heart outside my body and exemplify the same things to him.