“I’m going to tell you something, and then after that can we stop talking about it?”
“Sure,” I say. “What is it?”
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you?”
“OK, I promise.”
And then you lay it on me. Another great wrongdoing, or an embarrassing thought, or a YouTube video you watched with a bad word in it, or someone you think is cute, or something that happened at school, or maybe some clothes you tried on to see how they looked that you don’t want others to know about.
You are the most guilt-laden seven-year-old I’ve ever met.
I don’t know why. I don’t think I shame you for anything you tell me. On the contrary, I try my best to encourage your honesty. “Thanks for telling me that, buddy. I remember I felt like that when I was your age, too. I think all kids do.”
I’ve begun to wonder if maybe I have encouraged your honesty too much, though, so that you constantly feel a need to search your brain for something new to reveal. “A few months ago, I was playing a game with N. and another kid asked to play with us and I said no.” (I am making up this particular confession. Had it really happened, I would have been sworn to secrecy.)
You are like a blameless boy in a confessional cycling through the past few months to see what other faults you might have committed. And I am the priest on the other side of the box, trying to suppress a grin and give this confession its proper reverence.
One afternoon, you tell me about a character on a TV show you think is beautiful. “Don’t tell anyone!” you immediately command after you’ve shared with me. I again commit to holding this nugget in confidence and you turn to leave the room, your soul having been ever so slightly unburdened.
Before you leave, I have an idea. “Hey, buddy, can I tell you something? You have to promise not to tell anyone, OK?” You agree. “Well, there’s an actress in a few movies I’ve seen that I think is beautiful. Her name is Ana de Armas.” I pull out my phone and show you a picture. “Don’t tell anyone!” I say in my best impression of you. You agree and leave.
I hope my own confession may have helped, at least so you feel less alone, but thirty minutes later you are back in the confessional, telling me about something else from the past few months you have suddenly remembered to feel bad about.
I wonder if this sudden onslaught of guilt is a manifestation of the pre-Christmas anxiety many kids feel as they wait to see whether they’ve landed on the Nice List or Naughty List that year. A kind of Last Rites to get clean with Old Saint Nick before he sets out on his sleigh. That Elf on the Shelf has seen a lot, after all, and an accounting is due.
But it feels like there’s more going on than just being worried about what will appear in your stocking on Christmas morning. It feels like your childlike innocence is slipping away, and preteen angst is starting to fill its place. Is it any wonder that you, who are so emotionally mature for your age, would be ahead of the curve on this development?
Maybe not, but I don’t want you to get stuck in a place of shame and self-doubt and inner turmoil. How can I help you best to move out from it? Other than my constant assurances that you are normal and your feelings do not require any shame, how do I help you move along?
What would your mom say to you? I wish I could talk to her about this and come up with a plan to help you out of your funk together. I wonder if having her tell you it’s all alright would ease your conscience in a way that my words simply do not.
Or maybe she would just shrug and say to me, “Gee, I wonder where he gets it?” Perhaps she would point out to me that my angst about your angst is counter-productive. Maybe she would assure me that what I’m going through is normal for parents, the same way what you are going through is normal for kids. Maybe she’d tell me not to worry so much about it, just like how I tell you the same.
She had a way of holding up a mirror to me, helping me see myself for who I really am. I miss that.
Santa comes and, surprise surprise, you were on the Nice List again. No coal in your stocking, regardless of how many minor infractions you have committed this past year, or how heavy your conscience feels. In fact, as it always happens when we spend Christmas with your grandparents, Santa has been especially generous with the stocking stuffers and presents this year.
After you open a few gifts, my sister points out to you a note that Santa has left. You read it carefully, excited to find out that you have remained at the top of the Nice List.
After you have finished, I read the note and am pleased to see that Santa has given you consistent messaging with what I am giving you. Santa has a lot to say, I notice. If anything, he’s a little too verbose when he writes. Like your dad.
We spend the day surrounded by family. It is not the same large festivity of some Christmases past but it is far better than last year, when the pandemic kept us isolated at home. We play board games and read books. We fill our bellies with snacks and a dinner feast my mom and others have helped prepare. You play with your new slingshot, leaving little foam balls scattered around the house. That night, you invent an Elf on the Shelf game with your cousins, which involves the three of you posing mischievously until a grown up stumbles upon you, and the three of you try unsuccessfully to suppress your giggles.
Ironic how carefree and innocent you finally look now that you are pretending to be naughty.
The snow is falling down now in large, fluffy flakes outside your grandparents’ house. You are downstairs shooting baskets at a hoop hanging from the bedroom door. Between shots, you describe to your grandma the Chopped competition you are planning to do tomorrow with your cousins.
I’m thinking about what a gift it is to be here with the family and friends who still live in my hometown. I’m thinking about all the other people I wish I could be with this Christmas, and reminding myself not to take time with any of them for granted. I’m thinking about my dad, who has been gone almost twenty years now, and wishing I could talk to him about all of these things that are on my mind since he always knew the right words to say. I’m thinking about your mom, as always, and remembering some of the Christmases I got to share with her.
And I’m thinking about how lucky I am to have a son who is attuned to what he is thinking and feeling already at seven years of age. A boy who thinks about all the little choices he makes in his life. Who still wants to share everything with his dad, even when his dad doesn’t quite know how to ease his mind.
Before we head back to California, let’s remember to go out into all this freshly fallen snow. Let’s roll around in the powder and make snow angels before it all melts away. Let’s watch our breath steam out into the cold and pretend we are blowing all of our troubles away. And then, before we go, let’s breathe in the crisp, new air and remember to feel alive and carefree.