My 7-year-old son and I arrived early for school one day. In order to pass the time, I turned to the dozen second graders lined up outside my son's classroom and asked:
"How many of you have ever got a hug?"
All 12 children put their hands up.
"How many of you have ever got a hug from your mom, dad or grandparents?"
Again, 12 hands shot into the air.
(Confession: I like to ask questions of a group that elicit unanimous reactions. The feeling of instant unity is marvelous and it galvanizes focus.)
I had captured their attention, and 12 pairs of eager 7-year-old eyes looked up at me with anticipation. Not wanting to waste the moment, I bent down to eye level and pretended that I knew what I was doing when actually I was just letting my intuition take control.
"Did you know that when your parents give you a hug they are teaching you the most important thing in the world? Do you know what that is?"
The kids, who know me as a bit of a conversational instigator from other days we have waited for school to start, shrugged shoulders and rolled eyes.
"Love," I said. "With each hug, they are teaching you love. Which everyone needs. They are teaching you how to give it and how to receive it."
The teacher opened the door and smiled at me. I knew I had to sum up fast.
"So here's your homework. When you get home today, first thing when you see your mom or dad, you give them a hug. Show them you've learned the most important thing in the world."
I high fived the kids as they filed into the class, including my son, who was last in line.
But he didn't go in. Instead, he stopped and took a Thomas the Tank engine sticker from the front of his jacket. He had earned the sticker the day before for his good work in spelling. He stuck it on my shirt and gave me a hug and a kiss.
"I love you," he said, and then he walked blithely into class.
As I walked back to my car, I could feel my eyes mist up even as my smile shone at its brightest wattage. I wore my sticker -- and the love it represented -- all day from my breakfast meeting till the time I got ready for bed. I told the story to all friends and colleagues I met. With gusto. With gratitude. With awe.
It struck me that there's nothing like receiving love to inspire us to give it. Often, that's the role of the older generation. The ancestors' job has always been to save what is most valuable for future generations and pass it on. Beyond providing sustenance and shelter, beyond our values and our own particular lessons in living, we teach our young people how to love and be loved. Whether we are parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbors, teachers, coaches or just about any adult who has a significant relationship with a child, the most important lesson is always the same. Love.
I don't just mean the words "I love you," though they go a long way. I also mean kindness and nurturing and patience and perseverance. I mean the sparkle in your eye when you acknowledge someone for just being themselves. I mean the silly expression that helps children enjoy and share that most charming cousin of love, laughter. And yes, love includes loving yourself -- acceptance, affirmation, courage. How else do kids learn self-respect?
Love comes from deep within and spreads out into the cosmos. No one is excluded. No place is off limits. All are welcome. All can join the dance.
And so, to parents -- and significant adults -- everywhere, I say thank you. For loving no matter what. For your patience and your perseverance in offering those hugs of love.
Every sincere hug you've ever given is a gift and a lesson. They are blessings that one day will return to you.
God smiled when I got a sticker and a hug from my son. On that day, I saw the curve of love's benevolent circle bending back toward me.
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