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Three little words

IT was ``almost'' like all the other parcels that were stacked on shelves in the student section of the university's mailroom. It caught my eye as I waited for my own mail because the parcel was adorned with bright red handwritten lettering to identify the sender and recipient. And there was a capital-letter message on the side of the package. ``WE LOVE YOU!,'' it read. Of course, that package from parents to their child was a present of love - perhaps some fresh-baked goodies or a new sweat shirt or maybe a piece of clothing inadvertently left at home over a break. But to announce for the Postal Service and all to see - and especially the son or daughter - that the parents sent their love was a kind of special reinforcement that is so nice to hear.

It brought to mind the reality that in a society in which hyperbole is manifest, from advertising claims to political rhetoric, love is likely to be understated. Men, in particular, are reluctant to say ``I love you'' to their family members, wife, and children, perhaps because emotional control or coolness is the ``in'' thing. And as women emulate men in the work force, their special capacity to state their love might be lessened.

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Mastery over emotions, even eye movement, and what might be dubbed verbal neutrality (don't let anyone know what you're thinking, in other words) have served to repress what everyone wants to hear. There may be a risk that ``I love you'' might become less meaningful if said too often, but I suspect that is a lesser risk than the benefits of more frequent dissemination.

I got a bit misty-eyed reading those three little words on the package in the mail room, because in a world that almost revels at times in the necessity for complexity, there's still much to be said for the simple, intuitive wisdom of those anonymous parents. Long before academic specialists discovered body language, mothers and fathers employed it on children too small to understand speech or written words. It was a certain type of smile, a special nod of the head or sparkle of the eyes, or the manner in which a child's hand was held or an infant was caressed. Children knew that kind of love, and while parents can't be around to provide it continually, saying it or writing it provides a tie that still binds.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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