One of my favorite activities—although I can hardly call it an activity since it requires no apparent physical effort on my part—is to sit and watch my kids play, especially when they are totally unaware of my gaze, and interest. This is when I get I get to see them be real. I get to see how they apply their ever growing set of experiences to the world. I get to watch them be completely independent of me and my endless sharing of “rights and wrongs” and “dos and don’ts.” I get a glimpse of who they are, and who they might become. It’s fascinating.
Last week I sat on a bench, amidst a park of laughing kids, next to a man-made pond bubbling with the constant whir of a small fountain, providing a backdrop of white-noise, which allowed me to tune out the world and become lost in thought as I watched my son play basketball.
I observed him working through his routine—formulated and fine-tuned to get himself ready for actual games. But today he was improvising, trying variations on his moves, and throwing in some made-for-TV moments as well. I enjoyed watching him, especially because I could see how much he was basking in his own space, free from his siblings, his mom, and me.
But then a young girl about his age—he’s going into sixth grade—stepped on the court. I could see they were having a conversation of sorts. My son paused for a moment and then threw her the ball so she could shoot as well. I smiled, making some mental notes. He is willing to share. Check. He is open to new people. Check. Although his routine was now altered, he was willing to go with it. Hmm. Ability to improvise and be comfortable with change. Check, check. Empathy. Triple check.
However, he didn’t quite know what to do when a third player—another young girl— entered the mix, requesting the ball, but then not returning it. I laughed to myself as I watched him assess the situation and try to figure out the best way to let this new person know, that in fact the ball was actually his, not hers; and that he was actually doing her a favor by sharing. And then, a sudden, but not unfamiliar feeling came over me, and caused me to squirm on my bench. I wanted to step in and fix it. I wanted to explain to the young girl how she should be acting. I wanted to solve my son’s problems for him, even though he was hardly in a bind. Luckily, before I could take action—I really hadn’t planned on actually doing anything—my wife, who was now sitting next me, put her hand on my arm and said, “It’s alright. He’ll figure it out.”
And lo and behold he did. Well actually it became a moot point, because both girls quickly lost interest and went back to swinging on the swings. But this small and innocent occurrence got me thinking. Maybe I needed to take a hard look at my initial impulse. Why did I feel the need to step in? Was it me entirely, or did I feel my son needed to be a bit more savvy, or maybe even a bit tougher to be able to deal with the inevitable altercations that awaited him on playgrounds, school hallways, ballfields, or other basketball courts?
I don’t think of myself as a “helicopter parent” but I do think I’m probably too involved in the minutia of my kids’ lives. Part of this stems from being a stay-at-home dad, holding down the fort while my wife works her full-time gig. But the other piece stems from my own fears of the world. When I look back at some of the things I did as a kid I shake my head and say to myself, “There is no way I’d ever let my kids do half the things I did.” Of course these “things” informed and educated me to the ways of the world, and I emerged relatively unscathed, and far better for having experienced them.
As I sat mulling over my memories, I made a pact with myself. It was time to toughen up my son, and in turn toughen up my resolve to not let my fears get in his way. It’s his life, not mine. And the day I actually allow myself to get off the bench and intervene in his world, I’ll forever lose that special space where I have the freedom to observe, without him being aware of my presence.