THE BLOG
07/09/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

The Most Important Thing to Ask Your Kid Today

Dana Talusani

I stand outside the gunmetal gray doors waiting for a bell to ring, those doors to open and the chaotic kaleidoscope of children and backpacks and mittens to spill out onto the blacktop.

There's always a group of four boys who are first out of the shotgun. The instant the bell rings, they're out of that room, bellowing and yawping, leaping into the air, leaving the rest of the kids in their dust. Every day when I see them it makes me smile. Ah, the freedom of a ringing bell and an open door. You forget how thrilling it feels, bursting out of a quiet and rule-filled room into blinding sunlight and the promise of a free afternoon. It's almost like being born again, every day.

Clusters of girls follow, walking with deliberate self-control. They hoist their pink sweaters onto indignant shoulders, rolling their eyes and tossing their curls as the boys frolick and pop like unruly grasshoppers. Boys. Ugh. So excitable, those boys.

The kids who ride the bus hustle down a separate sidewalk, faces all business, intent on securing a good spot to sit. Some kids look anxious every afternoon -- they've been riding the bus for months now, but the threat of a missed bus still looms over them, and they study the sea of yellow and the jumble of numbers in the parking lane intently. Only when they spot the correct vehicle do they allow their shoulders to relax and their backpacks to swing.

My daughter is somewhere near the end of the stream of trickling bodies, but as soon as she exits the classroom she comes to a hard halt, backing up the line of eager kids behind her. She stops and her eyes scan backandforth, backandforth, until she sees my waving hand. Her face breaks open in joy and suddenly she's running, barreling toward me, jacket askew and boots thunking on the concrete.

I will never get tired of this.

I will never tire of the wave of love and relief I feel when I see her exit those doors.

Oh, there you are. I've missed you. Hi.

I also know this won't last.

Miss M. is the only second grader who still flings herself at her waiting parents. Other kids smile, other kids give a little wave of recognition, others dawdle a few more minutes to chat with a friend. Miss M. catches air, crashing into my chest, nearly bowling me over. Like a puppy, she's uncontrolled and completely unaware that her enthusiasm isn't the norm. Her pleasure at going home exceeds any thread of social boundary or self-consciousness.

It won't last.

I know that.

And it pierces through my joy at seeing her, a hard and sharp reminder that I'm on borrowed time. Greetings aren't simply joyous anymore; there are shadows now. Shadows in the background that I can see coming, shadows that fill me with loss and yearning, because even as I welcome her back home, I'm mourning the loss of her.

I'm mourning the loss of my daughter and she hasn't even done the leaving yet.

My worldly older daughter has been long gone for a while now, lost to homework and hormones and her iPhone, but Hummingbird still belongs to me.

I should be drinking in every last morsel of her, tucking memories into my pockets, not torturing myself with the things I'm going to lose.

Reunions are a mixed-up jumble for me now, even though I know I'm being silly. Spending time with my go-lightly 8-year-old feels a lot like the last day of summer holiday -- beautiful and aching at the same time.

Such is the nature of the beast. My beast, anyways.

I relieve Miss M. of her backpack and we walk, hand-in-hand, across a street and up three blocks where the car is parked. I park a distance from the school for good reason. Those three blocks are crucial information-gathering opportunities, and I don't squander a minute. Once she gets in the car, she's lost to the charms of the radio, fiddling with knobs and punching the volume. Anything good I'm going to learn? I have three blocks to wrangle it out.

The first block is full of the usual details -- what special she had today and who she played with and what she learned, but as we approach the second block, her hand tightens around mine and she sombers.

"I cried three times today," she says.

"You did? Oh no! What happened, Bunny?"

She purses her lips for a moment, considering, and then she says, "I don't want to talk about it."

"Are you sure? I mean, if you were sad, I'd really like to know why."

She shakes her head at me. "I'm not saying. I just... don't want to tell you, OK?"

OK.

But of course it isn't OK. There's a part of my daughter that she wants to keep from me. She has secrets that she keeps carefully in her corners -- corners that I'm not invited into.

Being uninvited sucks and it hurts and it makes me worry that she doesn't trust me to react appropriately to what she's saying. I'm not even being given the chance?

How can you help your kid when that door closes?

I fidget in bed, busy in my head. I call uncle! and throw the covers back. I walk quietly to my laptop and fire off a quick email to her teacher, hoping to gather more information.

"She said she was in tears three times today but she wouldn't talk to me any further than that," I write. "I'm at a loss with her. How can I make her feel better if I don't know what happened?"

Miss M.'s teacher calls me the next day during her break and what she says is a surprise.

"You know, sometimes she won't tell me either," her teacher chuckles. "She will express disappointment or sadness, but she doesn't want to go into the details. She'll close off."

"I know!" I whine. "It's so frustrating. What should I do?"

"Well," her teacher says, "I don't know what you should do. I don't even know if that's the question we should be asking." She pauses for a moment. "I can tell you what you can do, though."

"Please, tell me."

"When she tells you she was sad or crying or upset, instead of asking what happened, you can ask her what she needs."

"What she needs?"

"Yes. Does she need a hug? Does she need some time to herself? Does she need to cry about it for a while? Does she need to talk about it? Does she need you to let it go?"

Huh.

I've never thought to ask that question.

What do you need?

It's a completely different question than "what happened?" isn't it?

I've never seen that distinction before. "What happened?" focuses on the past. "What do you need?" focuses on the here and now.

I feel shaky and stupid and relieved.

Maybe, just maybe, the answer is in the question.