No, I’m not talking about the freakishly-scary toy from the late 80s pictured here (though, seriously – who gives that to their kid without realizing the intense amount of psychological damage it’s going to do?). I’m talking about my son, Jon. Lately, he has been attached to my leg like stretch pants on Oprah.
It starts in the morning. He won’t let Rachel get him out of bed. It has to be me. And once I’ve got him out of bed, then I have to get his milk and we must plop down together on the couch. Now, this would be ideal if it weren’t my responsibility to get Ella out the door every morning. So I usually end up just dropping him on his butt and racing out the door, hoping we’re not too late for the bus.
The positive, though, is that when I come back into the house, he lights up. There’s something magical about those little brown eyes that turn the color of honey when he sees me, and even more magical is when he pats the couch cushion next to him, pulls the blanket to one side and says, “You wan’ come shnuggle wif me?”
You would have to be dead not to feel special with an invitation like that.
When I do sit down, he immediately works his way into my lap and nests, nuzzling his chick-fuzz head into my shoulder before sighing a contented sigh that sounds like a dove cooing. In fact, when he did so this morning, Rachel looked at me and said, “You should see the look on his face! He is absolutely where he wants to be.”
We took Jon today to a tree farm for a field trip with his preschool class. He was excited. He kept asking me, “We go on mission trip?”
When we finally arrived at the farm, he got out cautiously, which is hysterical to watch. He’s so unlike his sister in small ways – where Ella would charge the Light Brigade, Jon tiptoes as if walking on glass. Where Ella would begin the barrage of questions, Jon will silently observe and touch before making a sound. It’s the little things like that which make being a parent so rewarding; watching your children each tackle the world on their own terms, seeing how they each come to their experiences with different goals and approaches, different hopes and fears. It’s amazing.
Once we were given permission by the farm’s owners, we started walking down the dirt road that runs beside the rows and rows of trees (mostly firs and cedars, trying to grow up to be chopped down; there’s a bitter irony). Jon took a few tentative steps, but soon enough was running ahead of us, his little legs bouncing across the dirt, his little head wobbling on his neck like a top losing momentum. He dashed down the hill and then up it, pausing near the crest to take in the smiling scarecrow that someone had erected.
“Wat’s dat?” he asked.
“It’s a scarecrow,” I answered.
Jon looked at it. “It not scare me!”
In fact, nothing did this morning. After the rest of his class arrived we sat through a book reading and some pictures before jumping onto a tractor-drawn hayride around the farm. Now, this was an old-school Ford 3000 tractor, which meant a lot of noise, a lot of smoke, and one heck of a lot of dust being belched up by the gargantuan turning tires. But Jon never made a peep; in fact, he sat st0ck-still beside his mother, never once reaching or crying out for me. Just sat there, like a little man, his left hand nestled neatly into his mother’s, his face calm and collected, his little eyes wide to drink it all in.
When we got off of the tractor, we were allowed to feed some goats and cows, which proved to be interesting for me. In trying to show Jon how to feed the animals (our instructions were, “Just hold the bread on your hand, and the animals will lick it off”), I unintentionally got my hand too far into a cow’s mouth and got nipped on the finger by one of the bovine’s jagged teeth.
This was a disaster waiting to happen on many levels; first of all, the wrong reaction from me would permanently scar the children waiting to feed the animals. Secondly, the thought of whatever microbes and/or diseases might be in the mouth of a cow made me loose in the lower abdominal region. Third, I really didn’t want to cry in front of my wife.
I sucked it up and pretended like nothing happened.
“See,” I said to Jon, “you just hold it out and they’ll eat it.”
Then I said to Rachel, “I just got bit by a cow.” Not the most masculine of sentences, but at least I didn’t cry.
After some anti-bacterial gel and a vigorous hand cleansing, I watched Jonathan feed the goats and cow without a hint of hesitation. While some of his classmates were decidedly timid, Jonathan was barging to the fence, bread in palm, holding his hand up for any available animal to snack on. He got so proficient at it that the lady in charge of the farm, Denise, remarked, “Wow! Look at him – that’s amazing!”
Jon just turned to me and said, “See daddy? I feed cow! Moooo!”
The rest of the trip went like that: Jon trying something, succeeding at it, then turning to me for approval. Whether it was picking pumpkins or sitting for a photograph, Jon wanted to know that I was watching and that I approved. And I was happy to validate him.
Such are the joys of fatherhood. Knowing that one word, one nod, one glance can make all the difference between a child who believes that he can face the world and win, and a child who believes the world will always overtake him.
It’s interesting, but with Ella I was much more aggressive, encouraging her to branch out, spread her wings, use her imagination and not be contained by anyone else’s preconceived notions. I never wanted my daughter to end up in the fetid little box our culture creates for girls; I wanted her to be both princess and dragon slayer, builder of castles and caregiver to those who live there. In short, I wanted her to have as much freedom to be her as possible.
I’ve not been as encouraging with Jon, in part because I guess I innately felt that society isn’t as stacked against boys. But I’m beginning to see that my presumptions were off; while it’s true that our society is more encouraging of boy’s “coloring outside the lines”, it’s also true that the world is not as welcoming to a child as it once was. Our expectations are higher (if you’ve ever noticed how quickly people get PO’d at a crying baby in public, you know what I mean), and that directly affects the margin we give our children. The unspoken message is “Succeed or else.”
By not encouraging Jon to color or write or play or imagine, by just leaving him alone and letting him go at his own pace, I have inadvertently disadvantaged him. Or so I thought. But watching him today, listening to the things that his teachers said about him (apparently he has quite the imagination…), I realized that Jon was given freedom just as much as Ella was – by not pushing him, I gave him space to discover himself on his own. And that person, the little man that he is, was on full display today.
One day, I know, the shnuggle-fest will end. He’ll be too big for it, too manly for it. One day those same dark eyes that light up when I enter a room will darken in my presence, and the magic will be replaced by mischief (or malevolence). The day is coming when my little buddy will be my young man, and hopefully he’ll be the kind of young man that earns the respect of his peers and his leaders. My goal is to give him the space – and the encouragement – to ensure that happens, while he actively wants me involved his world.
And when it does happen – and I know it will – I’ll also know to give him and his invitations into his life all the credit.