Before my son was born, he was gifted a book called “On the Night You Were Born.” It’s one of those recordable books that lets you tape yourself reading the narration and then plays it back for your enraptured child as he or she turns the pages. It starts with this sentence, “On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, ‘Life will never be the same.'”
In the story, the news of the child’s birth travels around the world and all of the flowers, animals and heavenly bodies remark in awe at the awesomeness of this incredible new baby (the listener). The book is replete with words like “magical,” “wonderful,” “special,” and, of course, “you, you, you.”
My partner and I read it together, exchanged horrified looks, and put it up on a high, high shelf in the hallway closet where it has stayed, collecting dust, until I retrieved it to write this article. We did not record our soft voices carefully pronouncing each word. We have not read it to our son, pressing a finger to his chest to punctuate each “you.” We don’t plan to, either.
Look, the hard truth is, my kid is probably not all that special. I mean, sure, in a “his DNA sequence is unique” way, I guess he is. No one else has his particular mix of guanine and cytosine, but I don’t think that’s what this book is getting at. This book seeks to extol my child as amazing and brilliant and remarkable simply for existing. But I was there the night he was born, and, in reality, the moon did not halt its orbit around the Earth. The polar bears at the North Pole did not dance all night. The ladybugs did not gasp in awe at the sound of his beautiful name. None of those things happened.
And more to the point, I don’t want him to think that they did. It seems a huge disservice to send a kid into the cold, unblinking world thinking that everything and everyone is all about him. That feels like an awful lot of pressure to put on so small a body. And such weighty disappointment when he realizes that, in fact, most of the people (not to mention polar bears) he’ll encounter may not care much about him at all.
Instead, my message to him is a humbler one. I want him to know he’s magical, wonderful and special … to me. I want him to know how much I love him. How much his father loves him. How much his grandparents and aunts love him. I want him to know that this love is a gift. It’s his no matter what and that he’ll have it forever, just for being him. I want him to know that this is a special kind of love.
When he’s older, I want to help him understand that there are other kinds of love that he must earn. That his friends will love him if he gives love in return. That his teachers will invest their energy in him if he shows himself to be willing to match their effort. That his lovers will expect devotion, tenderness, loyalty. That in jobs and hobbies and relationships, he will reap what he sows. That he will have to give to get. That there’s hard work to be done, if he wants to be noticed.
These are truths I don’t want to keep hidden from him. I want him to embrace them, and be prepared for them. So I’ll keep this book hidden instead. And when I fill his ears with love and praise in darkness and daylight, in the car, in the kitchen, in the wind and rain and sun and snow, it’s always the same message: I love you more than you will ever know. I love you just for being you. You are so very special … to me.
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