My son was a sophomore in college when he brought his first serious girlfriend home for his birthday dinner. She was pretty and petite and well-spoken, and my instinctual wariness (What does this girl want from my precious son?) ebbed as the meal progressed. At the end of the evening, as they were getting ready to leave and I was carrying dishes from the table to the kitchen, I passed the two of them standing in front of the hall closet. She had just finished buttoning her coat, when my son—a 6’1” bruiser, with shoulders that barely made it through our front door—flipped up her collar and said, “It’s cold out there.” His hands lingered under the cloth, cupping it to her cheeks, and he gazed down at her with a look of tenderness that, until then, I’d only ever seen him bestow on our dog. The object of his gentleness, whose blond head stopped just short of his overworked biceps, turned her face up to his. Her expression, which I remember clearly to this day, was one of complete trust and adoration.
Their emotional transaction lasted for no more than ten seconds, but that was long enough to convince me I had raised a son who could do more than simply consume a houseful of food in one afternoon, or emerge from a rugby match with a black eye and a grin. What I saw was that I had brought up a young man who could both inspire, and return, love.
It’s memories like these, I find, that I treasure most about my kids, not their public triumphs, but the intimate moments in their lives when, without knowing it, they showed me they were becoming the kind of open-hearted people I always hoped they’d be.
My daughter was seven years old the day the soccer team she played on after school lost a close game at the last minute, when their goalie was unable to stop a ball kicked swiftly into the net by one of the players on the opposing team. The loss was a big letdown for our side, so I prepared a consoling speech as I watched my daughter walk dejectedly off the field. All at once, I saw her lengthen her stride so that she came up beside her team’s goalie, who looked dangerously close to tears. I watched as my little girl leaned in and said something to her fallen friend, who shrugged her shoulders and seemed to brighten up. They gave each other a quick hug, after which my daughter skipped over to where I was waiting.
“What did you say to Natalie?” I asked, as she put on the jacket I held out to her. She brushed away the bangs that were forever flopping into her eyes and began to zip up. “I just told her that I thought the last ball had been a really hard one to stop, and that probably no one else on the team could have done it.”
“That was nice of you,” I said. She shrugged. “Yeah, well...” She didn’t seem to know how to finish the sentence. I guess a seven-year-old doesn’t have the dictionary definition of empathy at her fingertips. No matter. Her behavior was proof enough that she knew it by heart.
Look, there are many things my children are not and never will be: Rhodes Scholars, Silicon Valley billionaires, Nobel Prize winners, or Olympic champions. But does this mean they are less than they should be? Of course not—not if I remember that their value isn’t based on what they achieve, but on who they are.
I think we parents often forget this. I know I did all those nights I lost sleep agonizing over my son’s listless test scores or my daughter’s lack of direction, his carelessness, her dreaminess. It took me far too long to see that the question isn’t whether a child makes valedictorian, but whether he makes other people happy. It isn’t whether he gets into the college of his choice, but whether he makes the right choices. It isn’t whether he keeps his room clean, but whether he keeps his word.
As I see it, we parents are in the manufacturing business. We’re on the assembly line every day, reminding our kids to say please and thank you, not to hurt other people’s feelings, to work for what they want, to be good sports. And after putting in countless hours of unpaid overtime to get the job done right, our rewards are found not in diplomas or trophies but in the everyday feats of kindness and courage by which our children show us that we’ve turned out a quality product.
We just have to keep our eyes and our ears wide open.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.