My daughter was in the backseat of the car a few years back when she brought up the subject of clowns.
I don’t really like clowns. Sometimes they seem kind of creepy.
At this point, I was driving around a bend in the road and my brain was focused on turning the steering wheel just enough to make it without having to slow down too much. Apparently it takes up a lot of brain space because I went into auto-pilot dad mode.
Yeah? That’s a thing. Being scared of creepy clowns. There are lots of people scared of clowns. There was this guy named John Wayne Gacy. He was actually a serial killer and he would dress up like a clown for his job. Seriously. He did birthday parties and stuff. There are all sorts of pictures of him with kids at the parties and meanwhile, he’s out there killing people. I think he buried them under his house. That’s crazy, right?
I looked in the rear-view mirror and then peered over my shoulder to see her staring at me with a look of stunned silence. That’s when I suddenly remembered she was ten.
Oh. Was that too much?
Yes! I’m going to have nightmares now!
Yes! Why would you tell me that?!
My voice changed to that of a sitcom character in peril. If there was an audience, it would have sounded like I was playing it for laughs. I wasn’t. I was playing it for real.
I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I forgot you’re a kid. You seem grown up!
What does that mean?! It’s MY fault?!
No…no! Sorry. Sorry. Forget it. Forget I said anything.
Yeah, so this happens. It’s happened at other times too and usually about some sort of Forensic Files-type horror show. While I may have many more high points, it’s not about those. Parenting is less about those curse words we fight to avoid saying and more about the ones we accidentally do. It’s about the missteps, hiccups, and overall what-the-fudge moments that have the potential to do so much damage.
We think differently than kids do and that can lead to some crossed signals. When Olivia first went to kindergarten, I figured I would ask her a question that most parents wonder.
Did you miss me when you were at school?
Her words were spoken so sweetly. Like a candy-coated, sugar-infused dose of venom.
No. Not really.
Yeah. Just like that. It gets worse.
Oh. Uh, haha. I don’t mean like crying all the time like “Where’s Daddy!?” No, no. But like sometimes. A little sad.
Nope. Not really.
That’s what we want, right? We strive for kids who are secure and not upset to leave. Separation anxiety – we don’t want that. This was good news, right? Good news that she didn’t miss me. Didn’t miss her dad. Right? Right? Ugh.
So, you take those lumps and, make no mistake, even the most beloved bonds of parenthood are met with apathy when you’re dealing with a tiny person and their evolving understanding of emotion. As they get older, it gets better, but it’s still is very lopsided. Rarely does a kid weep for hours because you dropped them off at a friends house. If they do, then there’s something wrong there too. An apathetic kid at drop-off is a sign of strong parenting.
What my daughter doesn’t get is that, if I had my way, I’d text her all the time when she wasn’t in my presence. Out with her friends, in school, sleeping – you name it. Anytime she wasn’t around, I’d be twisting her up in emotional knots by writing how much I miss her and sending memes of cats.
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I can’t do that, though. That would mess her up. I know it and, because of that knowledge, I refrain. No one gives me any credit for that, though. For a society that supposedly gets participation trophies too much, I don’t get any for this act of selflessness.
My son is the same way. As he’s gotten older, his understanding of the world around him has gotten much better. A non-verbal boy with autism has a unique view of the world and Lucas certainly does. He’s grown to understand the his surroundings much better and, since he didn’t have words to tell us, it was on those around him to notice when he started to grasp things on a higher level.
There was a time, though, when he didn’t. The world was dangerous and he could get confused easily. Back then, I came always running.
The slightest whine or cry, I would literally dash into the room and lean down so he could see my face. Everything would be OK as long as I was there. I’d rub his head. I’d hug him. I’d be Super Dad. That’s what it says on the cape I wear when I go out to get the mail. All the neighbors are super impressed.
Today, though, those whines and cries aren’t out of lack of understanding. He understands the world and, like many, he’s learning how that world often sucks. So his upset reactions have meaning behind them.
He’ll be in the kitchen crying because he can’t reach the cookies that I put on the top shelf after I already told him no twice. Maybe he’ll be whining because he doesn’t want to go to bed yet even though he’s been yawning non-stop since dinner. Perhaps he doesn’t want to do remote learning on the iPad because he has a loop of Raffi clips to get to. Either way, the unhappiness isn’t always born of confusion. Sometimes it’s just because he’s a kid.
I don’t come dashing in anymore. I let him be a part of the world and I allow him to handle his own emotions. As long as he doesn’t have a meltdown or appear to be overly affected, I will stand back, fold up the cape, and let it play out.
Even though every bone in my entire body is shaking with the need to run in and scoop him up in my arms. I want to pick him up and spin around in a circle while threatening anyone in a one mile radius. I’m Ray Liotta in Goodfellas defending Janice from her boss. “Freakin’ Lucas does whatever he wants!”
I can’t, though. Freakin’ Lucas doesn’t do whatever he wants because one day very soon, freakin’ Lucas will be big Lucas and then we’re all in big trouble. I do it for the world and I do it for him. Messing these kids up just isn’t an option.
Actually, it is an option. It’s a very easy option. I’m just trying not to do it. We all are. Good luck. We need it.