Parenthood is full of memorable and significant firsts – the first time your baby smiles, laughs, crawls, walks and says their first words. There’s also a not so memorable first – the first time you realize you are powerless to protect them from the world.
Earlier this summer, I took my son (E) to a small neighborhood park. It was our first such trip without my wife. It was just “us guys.” I wasn’t sure what we would do at the park, as most of the playground equipment is for older children. However, E enjoys the toddler swing.
He also LOVES watching other people.
There were 10 or so children at the park, one who was close to E’s age, all the rest of them a bit older, ranging from four to nine years old. They were accompanied by mostly stay at home moms and some grandparents. I was the only young dad there.
As I pushed E in the swing, his eyes were on the other children. His attention was drawn to the closest group, four boys and one girl who were climbing a rope mountain. They were engaged in talk of who could climb higher, and who was “king of the mountain.” One boy, about five years old, proudly exclaimed that he was “queen of the mountain.” He wasn’t trying to be funny, he just didn’t know better. He reminded me of Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons. From a nearby bench, a six year old girl, who I took to be his older sister, crossed her arms, correcting the boy, “You can’t be a queen, you’re a boy.”
I thought it was funny how this girl, who was barely older than the boy, was mimicking a maternal way of talking to the boy as she crossed her legs and her arms as her mother must surely do when correcting the children. It was a funny moment which drew my interest as well as my son’s. I watched how the children interacted and my mind flashed forward to thoughts of how my son will interact with others as he grows. Will he fit in or will he be like me, painfully shy and a bit of an outcast?
I’m hoping he won’t be shy. He is a very friendly child and has one advantage that I didn’t have as a toddler. He goes to daycare, where he gets to interact with lots of children his own age. He also has a few family and friends similar in age who he sees on occasion. So, he is getting key socialization skills early in life, which I hope will make a difference.
After he got tired of swinging, I stood him up in the sand and we started walking, looking for something else he could do. I decided to just follow his lead and see where he wanted to go. But he wasn’t moving.
He just stood there in the middle of the playground, watching everybody, absentmindedly folding his hands together.
I spotted a ball about 10 yards away, close to the fence which surrounds the park. E loves balls, so I went to get it. I thought he might follow me.
Instead, he stayed put. Watching.
I picked up the ball and was heading back, when I stopped in my tracks. This was the first time I’d ever observed E from afar, on his own, surrounded by others. I was getting a rare chance to see how he interacts without my interference.
I stood there, watching him watch the other kids as he sucked on his paci.
He was absolutely adorable.
I was curious if he would approach anyone or if anybody would approach him. If so, what would happen next?
He just stood there, quiet and curious. His big blue eyes were wide and innocent, taking everything in as his head tilted from one direction to another. While a few kids looked at him as they ran by, E was too young to garner much interest, save for the occasional comment from girls who would say, “Oh, how cute,” as they ran by.
I wondered if he was afraid to approach anyone. Maybe he didn’t know what to do. When your vocabulary is limited to a few words, it’s probably hard to strike up conversations. I tried to imagine what he was thinking and how he was feeling.
It occurred to me at that moment how incredibly vulnerable he was. Just standing there, all by himself, in a sea of chaos. And while I was standing nearby, watching over him in case he fell or some jerky kid knocked him down, I realized for the first time that I will not always be there to watch over and protect him.
And all at once, my heart broke. I wanted to run over and scoop him up and hug him.
So, I did.
(Click here to read Part Two)
(note: I wasn’t sure if I was going to post this story, as it felt a bit too personal – for reasons which will become clear tomorrow. However, I was inspired by my buddy, Sean (Writer Dad) Platt’s rather personal and touching post and I decided to share, despite my uneasiness.)
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