I was forty when my first son arrived. That was no coincidence. Had I started my family any earlier I am certain that my boys would not be growing into the young gentleman that they are today. Tonight, 12 odd years later, I will remember forever.

Tonight, I walked into the house from the garage to the sounds of laughter coming from the kitchen. What better sound to walk in to? Michael, my oldest son, had his shirt pulled up over his belly and he said to his little brother, “Look, Jeffrey! I’ve got a one-pack.”

Although he was laughing, I knew from conversations in our past that he was self-conscious about his weight. In spite of the fact that he’s a beautiful young man, inside and out, he has always been self-conscious about his belly being, “too big.”

Truth be told, yeah, his tummy sticks out a bit, but it’s been that way since he was a baby. In fact, I remember taking pictures of him when he was just a toddler, then sending them off to his doctor, wondering if didn’t have some kind of serious GI issue. At its worst, it was dramatically distended. As early as 2 years old, his stomach occasionally looked like he was 9 months pregnant. Then, within hours, he looked quite typical again.

This year, now in middle school, Michael’s self-imposed “resolution” was to become a fitter, strong, healthier kid. “Hey, Dad! Maybe we could go to the gym together. What do you think? Not every day, but maybe 2 or 3 days each week?” This was his resolution on his terms. Of course, I would be there in support of whatever his goals might be.

Back to the laughter: After looking at Michael with his shirt pulled up, and recognizing that this is one of those times when, as the same gender parent, I needed to show him that I love him, absolutely and unconditionally.

Truth be told, after a short break in training, I was a solid 15 pounds heavier than I want to be…and I was FEELING it! I looked Michael in the eyes, then paused for a moment. I thought, “I know in my heart that he loves me, respects me, and admires me. I know that he watches me put in endless hours of training. I know that he has had tears in his eyes when I’ve crossed the finish line at various triathlons and other races.” Then, with my focus on him, and empathy on my face, I pulled my shirt up, stuck out my belly a bit, and said, “See buddy. I’ve got a one-pack too! I’ve got your back! We’ll work on it together, OK?”

That’s when he absolutely blew my mind.

That’s when he said it. He looked up from what he was doing, for just a split second, and said, “5 words Dad. 5 words!”

That phrase, “5 words”, has evolved over the thousands, yes, he’s 12…so literally thousands of hours spent tucking him in at night. Sometimes bedtime was a long and challenging part of the day, filled with growing pains. Sometimes bedtime was short and sweet. Yet other nights were filled with comfort, love, and a warm embrace.

Over those formative years, “I love you, handsome.” became, “I love you more!” or “I love you to the moon and back.” Then, “I love you, champ.”

Now he’s older. I know how challenging middle school can be. It’s so important that he knows, in his most challenging moments, that no matter what…I love him exactly as he is.

So what are those five words?

“Just the way you are.”

On that night in the kitchen, I showed him that I‘m self-conscious too and that I’ve got weaknesses and doubts, and perceived imperfections too. But when I showed him my insecurities, his immediate, almost unconscious response was just that…

“5 words dad. 5 words.”

All of those love-filled hours by his side for all of those years are showing now. But at no point did I ever see that, very directly, I would be the recipient of the love that I had given; that I would reap what I’d sown.

Love, the noun, is the fruit of Love, the verb.

I know that it can be hard. I know that perhaps now more than ever, we’re overwhelmed and fearful about our futures. But this makes it even more crucial, as parents and guardians, that we stay plugged into our kid’s lives.

We are not here to love our children for doing what we think is right. We are here to love our children because it’s the single greatest most inspiring, most transformative, nurturing act we could ever do for our children; for anyone for that matter. That kind of love is worth more than any family vacation or college tuition ever could be. The absence of that love is the single most devastating and destructive force I’ve ever seen.

So love ’em with all of their imperfections. Love them for those imperfections. When they make mistakes, and they will…guide them, redirect them, set expectations for them, challenge them, and love them just the way they are.

Mikey…you’re a special boy with a really sensitive and loving heart.​

I love you, son.

5 words.