When I scold my older boys for something, it’s their 5-year-old brother who cries — not because he’s in trouble, but because one of his brothers is.
When we’re on a family walk and one of us strays away from the group, he worries endlessly until the outlier is back within the fold. He asks for extra quarters to leave at gumball machines in case the next kid doesn’t have any.
He is the first to apologize, the first to empathize, the first to lend a helping hand. He finds joy, right now anyway, in helping others feel joyful.
His kind, compassionate nature is one of the most beautiful things about him. When I ponder his future, I’m excited about the prospect of all the good it could lead him to do. We need more people who care and feel and love.
At the same time, though, I’m frightened for him because the world can be so hard on the softhearted. Life is not easy when you’re wearing that heart on your sleeve, so it is both wonderful and terrible to be this way. It’s also awesome and scary being the mom of a child like this.
It has the potential to serve him (and everyone else) well or to hurt him and make him jaded. It could make him either a victim or a defender. I want desperately to help him preserve his sweetness while protecting him from the things that could take it away. It makes me think of a line from one of my favorite books, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, where she writes, “It was a moment of equal parts anxiety and awe, like the striking of a wide seam of gold. […] How to get it properly out of the earth? How not to be robbed in the meantime?”
His heart is that seam of gold, the treasure I’m entrusted to handle properly until its true value can shine. I don’t want him to change, ever. I want that sweet little boy to turn into an equally warmhearted, benevolent man. But sensitivity to others is not a valued trait for men in our society. It signals weakness, vulnerability — which is totally ridiculous, but societal reform is a painfully slow process. And all throughout his childhood, he’ll unfortunately be an easy target.
How can I know that I’m raising him to be sensitive anyway? To not fall prey to the people who try to take advantage of that characteristic or use it against him? It feels like a challenge I’ve been issued, a cause I’ve been assigned to champion without really having the slightest idea how to go about it.
I don’t want his sensitivity to work against him. I want him to turn a deaf ear to anyone who tells him he should be different or “man up.” I want him to understand that if he remains authentically himself no matter what, he will cultivate a formidable inner strength. I want him to know that what will sometimes seem like a burden can be his greatest gift, as long as he doesn’t allow anyone — or any circumstance — to change his perception of it.
But how do I teach him any of this when I’m not even sure how to handle it myself?
All I can do is nurture and encourage the compassionate side of him and hope it grows strong enough to withstand the hits he’s inevitably going to take. I’ll be his support system when life chews him up and spits him out, of course, but I pray that the hard knocks are few and far between.
And obviously, I’ll worry the way mothers have since motherhood began. Because no matter how old he gets or how world-weary he becomes, I will always see my sensitive kindhearted little boy, stacking quarters on top of the gumball machine so that someone else can share in his good fortune.