My son started responsively smiling when he was two weeks old.
Everything I’d read said that wasn’t possible, but there he was, grinning and drooling at our coos and big eyes. Our pediatrician was astounded and said offhandedly, “He’s one emotional little guy!”
We had no idea how prescient that comment would turn out to be.
As an infant, he tended to ping between laughter and tears. There was very little time in between. Our friends called him Smiley, and I have endless home videos of full-bellied, red-faced laughter. But when he was sad, he was heartbroken—the smallest disappointment cutting him to his core, his wails loud and so, so long.
His was a childhood filled with big emotions and endless antics. Boundary testing and willfulness, practical jokes, hitting and biting phases, hugs so hard they pull people over, hanging on people’s legs, popping out around corners to scare people, uproarious laughter, endless snuggles and big, puckered kisses, tears when games didn’t go his way, tears when he was frustrated, tears when he was sad, and tears when he was embarrassed.
My son’s heart is bigger than his body, and he wears it, unprotected, on his sleeve.
The thing about big emotions is that they’re all big. He’s not just a mischievous handful; he’s also the sweetest, most tenderhearted kid I’ve ever known.
He picks me flowers, he strokes my cheeks, and he holds my hand. He cheers on his sister in anything she does and loves nothing more than to be included in her world. If there’s an open lap, he’s on it, curled into a tiny ball, trying to get as much of his body into contact with ours as he can. Kind words have a near-visible effect on him; you can practically see his body open and shine when he’s praised.
And when he’s in trouble, the anguish and disappointment in his eyes rips my heart apart. He stands, head hanging and shoulders hunched, his own remorse worse than anything I could say, and holds his arms out to me, physically and mentally needing to be hugged and connected again.
My son is now seven. I spend Friday evenings at the local soccer fields, watching him practice cartwheels and occasionally kick the soccer ball. One night, he is playing goalie and someone kicks a ball that bounces off the side of the goal, ricocheting and hitting my son in the head.
I hear his initial “ow!” which, within seconds, has escalated into full-blown yelling and tears. He is screaming at his teammates “Don’t tell me something doesn’t hurt, you don’t know, you don’t get to tell me what hurts, stop laughing at me” while they blink at him, confused by the outburst. He is sitting in the middle of the goal and has brought the entire game to a full stop.
At this I step in, calling him over to me.
He sees me and comes, his face red and furious, tears streaming, and he buries his face in my stomach, trying to hide from the world. The first step, the only step, is to hug him.
I once read a parenting tip about dealing with tantrums, when my son was two and rocking our world. It described emotions as a train passing through a tunnel.
In order to get anywhere, the train has to make it through the tunnel. It doesn’t do any good to somehow stop the train in the middle of the tunnel; it’s hard to do, and even if you are successful, those emotions are still there, mid-mountain, and will eventually have to be cleared one way or another.
So I hold him, this seven-year-old boy with emotions bigger than he is, and we wait for the train to clear the tunnel.
It is exhausting.
Parenting a child with big emotions is mentally and physically exhausting. The days are filled with careful redirections, reminders, firmness balanced with gentleness, compromises, consequences, lessons, explaining, and endless doubt that you are doing anything right.
My husband and I constantly question ourselves.
Should we teach him to be tougher? Should we never raise our voice at all? What is he picking up from us? What should we be demonstrating better?
There is an inclination to wear him down. I don’t know how much of that is society driven—men should be stoic in our society, rarely if ever revealing their tender emotions—and how much of it is my own wish that he were just a little easier, a little calmer, a little quieter.
And then I remember his heart.
His huge, jagged, brand-new heart.
My son loves harder than anyone I’ve ever known. His desire to get things right, to avoid disappointing us, to make us proud, is unending. One morning, I went into his room to remind him that it was school picture day. I didn’t see him in his bed. I didn’t see him in his reading chair. He was hiding on the bottom bunk, fully dressed, a sad, can’t-win expression in his chocolate brown eyes.
“I just want one morning,” he told me, “where I do all the things right all on my own without you having to tell me so that you’ll be surprised and so happy.” I had come into his room too soon, and he hadn’t had time to make his bed, or brush his teeth, or have breakfast, or pack his backpack—all the things he’d listed out in his mind as steps to complete to pull off the surprise.
No matter how many times he fails, he is still trying to get it right.
The world is not kind to people like my son. People are uncomfortable with big emotions. In a society obsessed with perfection and efficiency, kids who don’t fall in lockstep with everyone else throw bumps into the smooth progress of the day. He will be constantly told, from all sides, that he is too much. The machinery of society will grind him down. His rough edges will become smoother, and the towering heights of his highs and lows will erode, worn away into something more linear.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The process of maturing from child to adult wears us all down, teaches us all about self-management and behavioral expectations.
But this is what I remember when I think, every night, about how best to parent my son: the world will tell him he’s too much. The world will show him the preferred box he’s supposed to fit into, and he will be too big for it, and he will have to find a way to make himself smaller.
The world will do these things, but I will not.
I will not tell my son he’s too much. In me, he will have a space to come and be as big as he needs to be. I will teach him about empathy and kindness. I will teach him to be aware of how his actions and words impact others. I will teach him strategies to self-regulate. And I will teach him that emotion is powerful and wonderful, and that tears are just as okay for boys as they are for girls.
I will teach my son that all people are different, and that it’s our differences that make our world as varied and unique as it is. I will teach my son tolerance, and I will teach him that his accepting, too-tight embrace should include himself.