Henry has just turned 6. The party now over, we open gifts as a family in the safe space of our living room. Henry opens a Spiderman toy from his classmate and bursts into tears.
“But he knows I like trains! He knows I don’t like Spiderman! Why would he do this?”
I attempt to gather him into my arms, but he will have none of it. His brain is on fire, reeling from this perceived betrayal. Hot tears spill over his flushed cheeks. I try to explain that his friend’s mother probably bought the present. I remind him how his classmates often draw trains for him at school. They know, I assure him. Still, Henry wails, “But why didn’t he tell his mom? He should have told her!”
The hurt in his eyes is almost too much to bear. To an outside observer it would sound bratty, but I know better.
If you know Henry, then you know how his mind works. You see the anguish on his face, and you know this reaction is more than spoiled selfishness. It’s authentic pain and genuine confusion. His heart is broken.
He longs to be seen.
One day this summer, while driving down a country road, Henry declares, “Mom, this year I want to open my presents in front of my friends.”
“Ok, bud. Remember, if you open a gift you don’t like, you’ll need to keep it in your thought bubble. You’ll need to say ‘thank you’ no matter what. Let’s practice. Pretend you just opened a gift and…”
“No no no. I changed my mind. I’ll open them later.”
I understand we’ve crossed a line; there will be no more talking about this today and maybe not at all. “Ok,” I say, “we can talk about it another time.”
Though he mentions it only in passing one more time, he is steadfast; he will not open his presents in front of his friends.
On the day of his party, somewhere between water balloons and snow cones, Henry walks up to me. “Mom? I want to open my presents now.”
“Remember the talk we had about it? Can you do it?”
“Yeah. I want to do it.”
So, he does. Henry opens gifts from friends at his birthday party. He smiles genuinely, expresses authentic gratitude, and never tells a friend he doesn’t like their selection. If negative thoughts are in his thought bubble, I see no evidence of them. It’s a morning of birthday wishes come true.
Days after the party, Henry pauses in the middle of play and points to a new train set.
“Mom, remember when (my friend) gave me that Thomas set for my birthday? He thought about me, because I like trains.”
I am transported to that evening two years ago, the evening of inconsolable tears, and I am relieved. He knows now. He knows he is seen. I smile and reply softly, “He sure did, honey. He sure did.”