As the photo clarifies, she said this “without any prompting.” This was not the first “l love you” that either I or her Mommy have received. We have, like all parents, been coaching her to do and say cute, adorable things. (We taught her to copy an obscure character from the already-obscure TV show Community, but that’s proven to be too culturally specific for most people to fully appreciate.) We say “I love you” to her when we put her down at night, and we say it slow for her to repeat it back to us. She’s pretty good at parroting phrases, so we’ve heard her say “I love you” in response to our prompts and coaching.
But at some point, children start doing things on their own. And so I was the fortunate recipient of her first spontaneous “I love you” offered at precisely the perfect moment.
Does she know what it means to love someone? I doubt it. At least, not the way I mean it when I say it. Of course, she does love me, with every ounce of love and care that a two-year-old is capable of feeling. But does she know that this is what she is saying to me? The cynical side of me says no. But then again, she said it after cuddling and playing with me in the morning. She didn’t say it while eating, or sitting on the potty. She said it at precisely the most correct and appropriate time. So it’s not simple repetition of sounds; she understands its context if not its nuanced meaning.
This is how children learn: socialized context. I remember when she first began smiling. I don’t think those first smiles were about expressing her true emotions; I think they were about eliciting coos and cuddles from the adults in her life (which then made her emotionally happy). Does that mean her smiles are false attempts meant to manipulate those around her? No, not anymore. But we all have to start learning from nothing.
Remember your first kiss? Remember how awkward it was? It was forced, contrived, perhaps sloppily mechanical, and was an attempt to approximate what you thought a kiss was supposed to be like. Hopefully, you’re better at kissing now (if not, then I hope you find someone you can practice with, because kissing is awesome). When you kiss someone now, what are the reasons you do it? It could be genuine emotional expression on your part, or it could be for the benefit of the person you kiss, or it could be because it feels like the appropriate action in that particular context. Most likely, it’s a mix of all three. But hopefully, your kisses are genuine and natural and easy. But they didn’t start that way.
We’ve been teaching our little girl to say “please” and “thank you.” These are phrases she learned in sign language even before she could speak. She can say “please,” but she still signs “thank you” (the th and nk sounds are still pretty advanced for her). Last night at church, our good friend KJ was kind enough to share her cookie with our daughter. The first bite she shared, we said to her, “Can you say ‘thank you’?” Our girl dutifully signed her thanks. For the second bite of cookie, she then signed her thanks again while we weren’t even looking. KJ happily reported, “She said ‘thank you’ spontaneously.” We were thrilled, but again – does our little girl understand the concept of gratitude? Or did she just say “thank you” because she’s learned that’s the socially appropriate response to someone giving you something?
At this stage, I don’t care; her behavior is appropriate. And we affirm it appropriately, which in turn reinforces the behavior and helps her begin making the connections to the deeper meanings of her words and actions. I want her to grow up saying “thank you” when people are generous to her, and one day in the future it will click for her, and she will understand that this behavior is not simply socially appropriate, but it’s socially appropriate for a reason: that another person’s generosity evokes a sense of thankfulness, and expressing this thankfulness is good and right.
Which brings me back to her saying that she loves me. I’ve no doubt she does love me, to the extent that a toddler can love another person. And let me clarify: I think that extent is pretty large, particularly when it comes to her parents. I don’t think she can comprehend or understand it, but I know that her emotional attachment to me and her mother is vast and intense. Much of it is based on dependence, of course, but it is still real. I can’t know to what degree she understands her expression when she said she loved me. But she understands several things. First, she understands the context. That phrase was spoken in a moment of tenderness and intimacy, just as it is each time we say it to her. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, she understands the response it gets from us when she says it. Of course the day will come when she will use those words for completely selfish purposes (“I love you, Daddy! Can I have the car tonight?”). But she is learning that those words are connected with the warmth and affection that she feels from us and for us. It’s the beginning of her experiences of what love is all about. This is both exciting and scary: that as she grows into an adult, all of her experiences of love – with her friends, with her family, with her lovers, with God – all stem from these beginning experiences of safety, acceptance, compassion and care. When I put that last sentence on paper, I’m tempted to feel a lot of pressure. But mostly I’m just deeply honored and grateful. What a blessing that I get to teach this beautiful creature what love is all about! But what I felt when I heard her say “I love you, Daddy,” wasn’t the satisfaction that I’m appropriately socializing my child, but the deep and heart-wrenching joy of experiencing love in its most basic and purest form. That’s the most divine of reversals: that this beautiful creature is teaching me what love is all about.