A few nights ago we had some friends over for a barbecue. We were chatting after eating when it was suddenly all too clear that it was time for my little girl to make her way up those well-worn stairs. She busted out into one of those epically embarrassing tantrums that only a human that isn’t quite three-years-old can muster. Total physical collapse, steady gaze, and an ear splitting scream. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s enough to jar even the calmest of folks. However, like a Stockholm automaton, I turned the jarable part of my being off and passively gathered my recklessly emotive spawn. I didn’t speak. I glided up the stairs with speed and uncharacteristic grace. I undressed, sponge bathed, tooth brushed, and pajamaed her all while she went through the varied and diverse stages of tantruming. As adeptly as I had turned this robot father on I switched him off. I looked at my daughter in her wet tear stained eyes and said firmly and directly “that’s enough”. And it was. She turned the routine off as well. We sat in silence for a moment before I grabbed “Green Eggs and Ham” (her current favorite) and made my way through it (tonight I opted for the food hater to sound like Gregory Peck and Sam to sound like Ronald Colman). When I finished she suddenly grabbed my face and said…
“Daddy you’re very good at scaring off monsters”
“Thanks honey. I’m always here to do that”
“I’m good at scaring them too”
“Of course you are”
“We both scare monsters off for our friends”
She then proceeded to roar at various invisible monsters and grabbed my hand to join her. We bellowed and yawped. We sat there in her white corduroy rocking chair that has been hers since she came home from the hospital and hollered at the wall. The same chair I fed her in and rocked her to sleep in and sang Monty Python songs to her in and read from Maurice Sendak to her in. It was one of those crystalizing events…at least for me. She’s already braver than I am. It’s in every fiber of her being. I looked at her and saw countless challenges unfolding over the years and for good or for ill she’ll always have the strength to look her problems in the eye and take them on. I hope that our culture or my own fumbling as her dad doesn’t rob her of this most useful of tools.
My mother is the first to admit that she wasn’t always calm when I was growing up. When I was no older than my son is now she had taken me to a local park to play. As she tells it she was sitting under a tree reading a book and letting me have at the 1980’s rusted metal playhouse that sat at the far end of Arbuckle Acres Park in Brownsburg Indiana. I was the only one playing when a pickup truck rumbled around the corner and parked by the swing set. My mother said a large man exited the cab and began walking towards me. She immediately stood up and ran towards my location. The guy saw her and got back in his truck and drove off. Now her memory of these events could be hazy and the guy might have just been looking for a place to sit and enjoy a sandwich when he was scared off by my mother but regardless of his intentions it marked a change in how my mom approached my freedom. She became much more guarded towards me and the taking of risks. She checked in much more often than she had with my older sisters and could be very nervous around strangers and new places I found myself in. Now by today’s standards my mother (even with her change) would be seen as downright passive. I was still allowed to ride my bike all over the place, go over to friends’ houses, and have a mostly normal 1980’s childhood (see “Stranger Things” for reference…minus the supernatural aspects) but her tolerance for my taking risks was markedly lessened. This difference at such a young age crystallized a lot of things for me. I don’t blame my mother for being more cautious (and as a result making me more cautious) she was a good parent and doing (as all of us parents do) the best she knew how. But. But now I’m faced with the realization that I can continue the spirit of aggressive caution with my brave daughter or I can develop my parenting vocabulary to encourage bravery. It’s, by the very definition of it all, daunting. I can’t look at this young human trumpeting at the unknown with both strength and tenacity and then rob her of that. The boundaries and rules my wife and I continue to set up will have to be enough. My fears can’t be hers. There are so many ways to screw a person up but projecting fear can’t ever be one of them. Although she did say I was good at scarring monsters. My nearly three-year-old daughter might see something in myself that I’ve had a hard time seeing for decades. I can be brave. At least I can be brave for her bravery.