Many years ago, I heard an Oprah interview with the novelist Toni Morrison, who passed away in August. Morrison described how, when her children came into the room, she thought she was showing care by fussing over their appearance, “to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.”
But that was not what they were looking for, she said. Instead, she offered a different measure for care, “Does your face light up when your kid walks in a room?” Does your expression say, I’m so glad you are here?
Her words gave me an anchor point during the physically-intensive years of raising small kids. My children are a bit older now, but parenting remains beautifully messy work. We bump up against each other and fiddle with each other’s most vulnerable buttons. The emotions they hold in at school come roaring out at home. And sometimes the emotions I hold in at work do, too.
Morrison’s words offer grace. Something simple and sacred that I can do every day. When my kids come down blurry-eyed and cranky in the morning, I can offer them a smile. When they come home from school, my face can be a safe landing place. And when they go to bed at night, I can muster up a final “I love you,” even if the evening went awry.
Last year, when I was searching for the Toni Morrison video clip to share with a friend, I discovered that I had gotten her quote wrong – by one word. She does not say when “your” kid walks in a room. Rather she says, "When a kid walks in a room--your child or anybody else’s child--does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for . . . let your face speak what’s in your heart. It’s just as small as that."
A kid. Anybody else’s child.
She wasn’t just talking about parenting. She was talking about our holy obligation to see the dignity in every person -- a dignity that Mr. Rogers offered children every day when he signed off his show with, “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
Children and teens are great anthropologists. As school counselor Phyllis Fagell told me, “Your kids have a Ph.D. in you. They are watching everything you do.” My kids are watching my face in the grocery line. They are watching how I greet the woman in a hijab in front of us and the man in a wheelchair behind us. They are watching how I greet their friends on the playground and how I interact with a stranger who stops to ask for directions in halting English. They watch my comfort -- or discomfort -- in interacting with children with disabilities, visible and invisible. They are looking for clues. Does my face light up, still?
I think about Morrison’s words in my work as a middle and high school teacher. In the first 60 seconds of class, what does my face communicate? When a student slips in after the bell, does it say, “You’re late again,” or does it say, “I’m so glad you are here”?
Harvard psychologist Dr. Susan David introduced me to the word “sawubona,” a Zulu greeting from her native South Africa. It means, “I see you.”
As she shared, “Every single one of us wants to be seen. For me, ‘I see you’ means creating a space in your heart and in your home or classroom where [a child] is seen. When children and adolescents are very upset, literally just the presence of a loving person helps to de-escalate and creates the space where calm is invited in.”
Most days my daughter takes the bus home, but sometimes my work schedule allows me to pick her up at school. Pick-up is in a cavernous cafetorium, with sign-out sheets and deafening noise and hundreds of kids hunting for their parents.
When she enters the room, I watch her scan for me, her eyes darting about, her lips tight. And when she sees me, her face explodes with a relieved smile and she starts to run. She’s found her person.
I may not get this reaction when she hits adolescence, and that’s okay. For now, I soak up that face that says, “We see each other. We belong to each other.” It reflects everything I want children to feel about themselves in my presence: that they shine, and that when my face brightens when I see them, it is simply a mirror of their inner light.
Deborah Farmer Kris is Associate Director of the LifeCompass Institute for Character and Leadership, and she writes about parenting and education for PBS Kids and for MindShift, an NPR education blog. You can also find her at deborahkris.org.