What I Want You to Know on Your Seventh Birthday

Every loving parent has two warring instincts which, during normal times, reach a sort of uneasy equilibrium.

First is the instinct to give your child everything under the sun. This starts during pregnancy, when parents convince themselves that a new baby somehow requires a five-setting stroller with all the latest technology. It only gets worse from there. You really don’t expect to be that parent, searching out a discontinued Lego set because it contains a minifig of a character that your child has recently become obsessed with, but somehow that’s where you find yourself.

(I have it on good authority that this first instinct is strongest when it concerns only children, such as yourself, and weakest when it concerns middle children, such as myself.)

If the first instinct is about saying yes to everything, the other instinct is about saying no. You may think you’re a pretty go-with-the-flow kind of guy, but then your child asks if he can play one more “very short” YouTube video before bed, and you realize that you do in fact have a breaking point and it is another three minutes of kids ‘reviewing’ toys on camera.

This second instinct so clearly arises from a need to protect (“Don’t put that in your mouth,” “Don’t climb that old fence with rusty nails,” “Seriously, do not put that in your mouth!”), but somehow it transforms into something that is not at all about preservation of the species. You start to say no because you think boundaries are important, no matter how arbitrary they are or how recently you created them. For example, you know beyond question that there is no logic in the statement, “No, you can’t have any more carrots until you finish that slice of pizza,” but giving in will show a weakness that will inevitably be exploited and you can’t have that. So, instead you stick with it, logic be damned.

Now, when a parent dies, the equilibrium is destroyed, and the surviving spouse finds him- or herself giving in to the former instinct far more often. In fact, it becomes almost impossible to say no. You want more than anything to be able to give the grieving child something to feel happy about. Any momentary distraction feels worth it, no matter how silly or expensive. You don’t say yes to everything, of course, but you say yes to a lot more than you did when your partner was around. Partly it’s because you feel far less capable of taking on the sad look on your kid’s face when there’s no one supporting you and your no, I suppose. But more than that, your instinct to want to give your child something kicks into high gear knowing all that your child has lost and had taken away.

So here we are a couple days before you turn seven. We had your birthday party this afternoon. In preparation for it, I went a little overboard. The yes instinct helped me justify a bunch of things I probably would not have bought if there was a little more equilibrium in my parenting these days. A trip to Party City, some Amazon purchases, a trip to Target, an entertainer in a Spider-Man costume. Lots of yard work to get the yard ready. Pizzas, an ice-cream cake, a pinata, party favors, streamers, the whole nine yards.

You were completely and unabashedly happy. You laughed and played with your friends, kicking balls and chasing each other around the yard. You shyly gave Spider-Man some of your art, and later you told me it was an honor to meet him. You ate pizza and ice cream and asked if you could have some of your pinata candy. You can probably guess my answer.

A few days ago, I looked back at pictures of you from last summer, not too long after your sixth birthday. I noticed that in many of the pictures you weren’t smiling. I mean, of course you weren’t. Your mom had just died. What was there to smile about? Six years old and already seeing firsthand how cruel this life can be.

And, let me tell you something I think you should hear. If that perfect smile had never returned to your handsome face, I would have loved you all the same and felt the same pride in your strength and character. It would have hurt my heart to lose that smile for good, true enough. But it would not have been a failure of yours or mine if it had departed and never found its way back. That’s what happens for some people after a tragedy, and you really can’t blame them.

But, oh, to hear you laughing at your birthday party a year later! To see that beautiful smile light up your face again as you play with your friends! So many people played a role in that smile’s return that I really can’t take too much credit. But, somehow, that careless and authentic smile feels like the greatest thing I have achieved all year.

You should be warned that soon enough there may be a return of no in your life. But, for now, I am grateful for the healing power of yes. So, enjoy it and smile. Happy birthday to you.

2 Comments on “What I Want You to Know on Your Seventh Birthday

  1. And the lack of ability to say no is the reason Ben Webster attended an Ozzy Osborne concert when he was 10 or 11. I think you’re doing a great job with the balance of life. Your calm spirit is a valuable asset.


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