“Thank you for your concern. My name is Jeremy, by the way.” he said as he extended his hand.
“That’s interesting.” I said as I shook his hand. “My name is Jeremy too.”
We exchanged a friendly smile and parted ways.
As I walked away, my mind was whirling with questions:
- Did our conversation make any kind of difference for him as a parent?
- Or for his daughter?
- Why can’t I come up with convincing arguments on the spot like other people I know?
- Was it right for me to get involved in the first place?
- And finally: he seemed like a nice guy, patient with this stranger asking about his parenting approach, but he also appeared immovable, convinced of his own rightness. Was I any different way back when we only had one child? Would I have been any less convinced of my own rightness?
I should back up. Earlier this week (by which I mean last summer, as it has taken me this long to post this…), Jessica and I walked to the little park near our house to get our #TLBmoves on, meaning that we were there to exercise, also known as torturing ourselves. The park is conveniently located about 4 blocks away from our house, has a perimeter of 1/3 of a mile, making it very convenient to track the few miles we walk/run around it, and perhaps most importantly: it has a playground in the center, complete with swings, a giant metal slide in a climate where burnt legs aren’t a concern, especially with the giant pines encircling it, a wooden teeter-totter (or seesaw), a set of three wooden balance beams, a merry-go-round (banned in Texas for being too dangerous, but definitely the highlight of the park), and finally: a jungle gym, which is the only piece of playground equipment actually pertinent to this story. We love our neighborhood park, with its old-time nostalgic charm.
As Jessica and I were preparing to walk in circles with a few painful stretches, we both distinctly heard a child crying nearby. We looked around for the source of the crying and saw a young girl standing on the jungle gym, perched on the top rung of a small ladder, holding on to a vertical metal rod. I guessed that she was about 8 or so. She was just standing there, crying, whimpering, and calling out “Please, Daddy” softly. Not quite a whine, more of a plea, scared maybe, somewhat desperate, and it had a gut-level effect on me of wanting to run to her rescue. It must have had the same effect on Jessica, because we both started walking toward her. I wondered “where is her father?” (I may have been less polite about it in my head).
As we got closer to the young girl, I felt it was more appropriate for Jessica to speak to her, and to do so alone, so I stood back and observed as they had a brief conversation. I noticed a man walking around the playground area, keeping a calculated distance from the jungle gym, a slow, deliberate circle around the girl. “I want my Daddy” the young girl whimpered as she pointed toward the man. I’m not sure if Jessica helped her down or indicated somehow that she could go to her daddy, but the girl ran over to him and they started talking. Nothing about their body language or tone communicated that the girl was in any kind of danger, so we left them and started out on our walk.
Next thing we knew, the girl was back at the same spot on the jungle gym, whimpering “Daddy” while her Daddy resumed his orbit around her. It took 1 3/4 times around the park before I broke down and decided to have a conversation with him. On our wider orbit around them we overheard the girl saying “I need to use the bathroom” “I am scared” “My tummy hurts” and “I really need to poop, Daddy” while her father stayed his course, sometimes on the phone, sometimes not.
It took about 10 seconds of us being aware of the crying for us to want to help the little girl. It then took us about 10 minutes to decide to do something about it. Those 10 minutes were filled with questions about overstepping boundaries, the appropriateness of questioning the parenting choices of complete strangers, assessing whether or not we thought the child was in any danger, what constitutes “danger” including different forms of abuse, and finally processing my desire to confront the guy. The thought that ended up motivating me to walk up to a complete stranger to challenge his parenting choices was that if the girl was actually some kind of victim, what kind of person would I be if I did nothing (like the many people who witnessed my big sister get beat up and mugged in broad daylight in NYC and did nothing)? If I don’t speak up for the victim, who will?
Once I allowed the possibility of some sort of abuse my protective side wanted to confront the guy and give him a piece of my mind, if not my hand also, but I realized that I didn’t actually know if she was a victim, so I decided on a different approach: to offer support. So I struck out in his direction and when we made eye contact, I said: “Hi! Is everything ok?” and joined him in his orbit around the girl.
What I took away from the conversation was that he is a loving father who wants what’s best for his daughter. She is 5 1/2 yrs old (and very tall for her age!) and is afraid of the monkey bars. He knows how important it is for people to face their fears, and he doesn’t want his daughter to grow up to be a person who runs away from frightening situations. When I asked him “why now?” he responded with “why not?” He explained that this was day 2 of her facing the monkey bars and it was clearly not a question of being able to reach them (I agreed), just an irrational fear to be overcome. He also very patiently put up with this stranger questioning his parenting choices, which just reinforced my impression that he was convinced of the rightness of his choices and his strong, immutable will. The only thing of value that I felt I communicated, other than the probing questions, was the story of how I learned to ride my bike as a kid. My dad tried to teach me when I was about 6 or 7 but I was deathly afraid of falling. We would try over and over again: he would hold the bike still until I was balanced and then he would run with me to help get me going, but as soon as he let go, my feet hit the ground and I slid to a stop, frightened and crying. Before long he had compassion on me and told me that he would help me whenever I was ready. I think I was about 12 when I decided I was ready. I grabbed a bike about my size (a green “girl” bike with a basket in front) and taught myself to ride in about 20 minutes. I faced my fear. I conquered it. When I was ready.
I thought it was a great story to share. It didn’t seem to make much of an impression on him. But the whole situation clearly made an impression on me. When he indicated that he was done with the conversation and I learned that we shared the same first name, I wondered: If I could go back in time, what would I tell my younger self about all these things that I instinctively “knew” were true about parenting? (many of which we have either updated or replaced altogether). And honestly, would it make any difference anyway, convinced as I was that I was making the “right” parenting choices? Maybe. Maybe not. But if I could, here are a few thoughts that I would want to communicate with my younger self, much as I wish I had been able to do with the Face-Your-Fears Jeremy I met earlier this week:
You are responsible for your daughter, yes. Please keep giving her food to eat, clothes to wear, a place to sleep, protect her from physical harm, and give her educational opportunities, starting with you: that you will love her no matter what, that you will always be there for her, that you love her inquisitive mind and her creativity. You are responsible for her, yes, but you are not in control of her. Stop trying to control her. In order to control another person, you have to break them in some way, break their ability to make decisions for themselves, break their natural curiosity about things, break their trust of you, and eventually not only their will, but your relationship with them – permanently. Teach her how to better control herself, as you keep working on controlling yourself. But make no mistake about this: she is already in control of herself, as it should be, and if you really want to control her, you will have to break her. Oh, and if you succeed in breaking her, she will forever seek for someone else to control her, even after she leaves home. Is that really what you want?
Respect her boundaries. These may be personal, developmental, or completely irrational, but she is not you, you are not her, and she isn’t a big grown up like you. You understand things very logically; she does not. But that doesn’t mean that she’s “wrong.” It just means that she sees and feels the world very differently from you. Pay attention. Listen. You may learn a thing or two from her, like lessons in perspective.
Respecting her boundaries is just one of the ways that you can communicate that you respect her as her own person. If she senses that you are trying to control her, force her, or manipulate her in any way, she will fight back, because no one actually likes to be controlled (it’s a self-preservation response) which leads to a battle of the wills. You will quickly learn that when it comes to battles of the will, no one ends up winning. Not even if you win the battle. You still lose. Because she is defeated. Congratulations, you taught her that you are stronger, more patient, or smarter. Which, if I may: well, DUH. You’re an adult. You also taught her that you are her opponent, you are someone to fight against. It took us a long time to figure out that it is so much better to fight alongside our children than to fight against them. Wouldn’t you rather be her ally than her opponent?
Which leads us to the Monkey Bars Battle. You decided it was time for her to face her fears? Who decides when it’s time for you to face yours? What if I gently, patiently, and lovingly FORCED you to face one of you fears? Would it be right because of the way I did it? You decided to try to control her, and you turned her fear of monkey bars into a battle of the wills between the two of you. Which means, that even if you win and she overcomes her fear (after possibly peeing her pants), she’ll have done it because she feared you more. And good luck getting her to talk to you about ANYTHING frightening in her life ever again. You’ve just taught her that you’ll be “over there” while she faces her fears alone. Don’t be surprised if she’s decided to hide her distrust of you behind a nice, thick, relational wall. By the way, in what universe is it essential that she master the monkey bars in order to be a well-adjusted, successful adult? Wouldn’t it be enough to let her play at the park, assuring her that whenever she’s ready you’ll be there to help her master the monkey bars?
Of course, if I were to meet up with my old self, I would have to tone it down a bit or the older me (by which I mean the younger me) would probably get defensive and stop listening. But, seeing as there’s no way that will ever happen, I can only hope that I choose the right parents to interact with today and hope that my simple thoughts lead them to evaluate their choices and grow as parents. Face-Your-Fears Jeremy, I’m talking about you. I sure hope my little story about how I learned to ride my bike gets you in the end, for the sake of your daughter, and your relationship with her.