Three Little Words
By Ellen Notbohm 

Valentine's Day will come and go this year and will make twenty-something times I will not have received a Valentine from my husband. He has a long-standing allergy to what he calls "commercially mandated" holidays, declaring that he doesn't "need Hallmark to tell me how and when to love my wife." And I really don't care because, 365 days a year, he shows his love in dozens of ways.

It isn't that I don't care about hearing those "three little words." Who doesn't? My son Bryce has autism, and when he was young and only minimally verbal, I had my blue moments wondering if I might never hear "I love you" from him. But when the day finally did come - oh my! Those three little words were not whispered in my ear or crayoned on a card, but announced at a school assembly. The students were supposed to describe themselves as a dictionary entry with three definitions. The typical definitions were along the lines of soccer player, math whiz, love to draw, etc. Bryce's definition of himself was "someone who loves my parents." It was, of course, a moment that completely redefined the word "unforgettable." 

When a child struggles with verbal language, social communication or emotional issues as many children do, it gives new meaning to old clichés like "actions speak louder than words" and "a picture is worth a thousand words." We may shower our kids daily - hourly! - with the words "I love you," but, after all, the glory of love is its infinite abstraction. We can't assume that children will ascribe the same meaning to the word as we do, no matter how often they hear it.

The good thing about growing older is that your kids grow older too. One day they emerge from childhood and pre-adolescence ("pukey pubes" as one friend good-naturedly calls them) and, rather than telling you all that you do wrong, they begin to tell you everything that you did right. My son Connor is 20 now and Bryce is nearing 16, and they tell me that, although they certainly heard those three little words "I love you" from me on an ad nauseum basis, it was a number of other three-word phrases and the actions that accompanied them that really imprinted the I-love-you message on their hearts.

"I'll be there." At the hoary age of 11, Connor got up at his grandfather's funeral and told 200 people that his "Grandpa was all about devotion. He was at every baseball game, every birthday party." He'll be able to say the same thing about us when the time comes. To us it was the most natural thing in the world, not an imposition at all, that we would be at every ball game, every swim meet, every Halloween parade, every school performance, art show and parent conference. Also for every nasty doctor appointment, call from the principal, broken window and broken heart. I'm sure we put in thousands upon thousands of hours being there, but those years flew by, and what we are left with now is kids who may not remember their bygone teammates or birthday presents or illnesses, but do remember that their parents were always, always there for them.

"I was wrong." So many people find it terribly difficult to say these three little words, and yet nothing is more loving than giving your children the gift of being content with their own humanity. By freely admitting when you are wrong, you are modeling strength, grace and humility. These are learned skills that we cannot assume will come naturally to our children. For some children, all errors come in only one size: colossal! By freely admitting when I was wrong (which was frequently), my children learned that, not only will the world not come to an end with such an admission, but that trying again and/or making amends can feel great.

"I am sorry." This cousin of "I was wrong" has been immortalized in music, film and print. Elton John got it right with his song "Sorry seems to be the hardest word..." and the movie Love Story got it wrong with its idiotic premise that "love means never having to say you're sorry." I recently read a magazine article entitled "50 Things You Need to Know by 50." One of them was, how to say you're sorry. OHMIGOSH!! Pardon me, but in an ideal world, this is something everyone would know how to do by age 5, not 50! This skill most certainly will not drop out of the sky for your child. Teach him through your own actions and words that love means learning to say you are sorry when you have honestly wronged someone, intentionally or not.

"Let's read together." We all parent from our own experience, whether we (for better or worse) emulate our own parents or consciously choose a different way.  My parents read to me every night and so I did the same with my kids; it was like breathing to me. In my naivety, I assumed all parents read to their kids every night and, in my naivety, was mightily stunned to find it was not so. But it's one thing my kids refer back to almost daily, endlessly quoting favorite lines from the books we read all those years. And how fondly they remember that good-nights were always said at  bedside -- never, ever called up the stairs from the phone or the TV room.

"I'm Connor's mom." Connor swam varsity at Wilson High School for four years. Each year the kids and parents ordered team sweatshirts with customized printing on the back. Most chose clever nicknames, but I chose the three little words, I'M CONNOR'S MOM. I could never have imagined the response this would bring. People would (and still do)  walk up to me and say, "Hi! And how is Connor these days?" It took me a while to figure out that these were strangers; they didn't know Connor or me. But they all told me they adored the walking "I love you" billboard that was my sweatshirt. Even now, my son warns people not to mess with me because "she's Connor's mom!"

"Just be yourself." Connor and Bryce have both told me that these three little words were the most important ones of all. As children grow older, they mingle with more and different kinds of families, and they begin to be able to place themselves in the context of the larger world. My kids heard "just be yourself" enough to ultimately learn that, whatever their doubts about themselves and their various limitations, they have the power to decide whether to be their own best friend or their own worst enemy. That's a power no super-hero can touch.

Three little words. We say them, we hear them, we live them, we re-live them. Writing this column has been a joy for me, recalling a lifetime of love expressed so many three-little-word ways. But I saved the best for last, the three little words I whispered - and still whisper --  in my boys' little ears at the end of each and every day.

I'm so lucky.

This article first appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of the Autism Asperger's Digest magazine, Reprinted with permission.

(c) 2008 Ellen Notbohm

Two-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of four books on autism including Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. Ellen's latest release, The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled (2007, Future Horizons, Inc.), has been named a finalist in ForeWord magazine's prestigious 2007 Book of the Year Awards competition. The nomination is her third in as many years. She is a columnist for several national magazines and a contributor to numerous publications and web sites around the world. To contact Ellen or explore her work, please visit


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