I had a dad moment this past weekend.
Last week, Trudy, Eitan and I were in the car and one of my favorite Billy Joel songs came on the radio. Trudy and I immediately started singing, belting out the words at the tops of our lungs and dancing in our seats.1 I looked back at him a few times during the song so that I could see him grinning widely and dancing in his car seat along with us. Eitan had never heard the song before but he could tell that it was important so he joined in.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, we had some friends over at our apartment. They have two girls; one is Eitan’s age and the other is around a year and a half. Eitan gets along with both of them; he goes swimming and plays dress up with the older girl and holds hands with the younger when she wants to walk with him through the hallway at school. (Incidentally, the way he plays with the younger girl is one of the reasons Trudy and I are so excited to see Eitan as an older brother.)
At one point during the afternoon, Eitan asked to put the Billy Joel song on from my phone. He started singing and dancing immediately, although by “dancing,” I mean he was running back and forth over the six feet of floor space between the couch and the wall. The younger girl thought this was hilarious and started to walk towards Eitan to join in. Eitan didn’t see her immediately and ran into her. Each child fell backwards, slightly dazed, but unhurt. They looked at each other and turned to look at me.
That was the moment.
That split second of silence, as two pairs of young, expectant eyes, looked to the nearest adult to tell them how to react. I could practically see the thought bubbles above their heads. The girl just seemed confused; “What just happened? Am I hurt? Should I be angry? Should I cry or laugh? What am I supposed to do here?” Eitan, on the other hand, was bracing for trouble. “Here it comes,” he thought. “I was running around too much and I got too wild and she’s little and I ran into her and now Daddy is going to yell at me again.”
I smiled broadly, threw my arms out sideways and shouted, “Safe!”
The girl started giggling, relieved that she didn’t have anything to worry about. Eitan smiled too, likely as relieved that he wasn’t about to get disciplined in front of his friends as much as the fact that he hadn’t hurt anyone or broken anything. He put his arms out sideways too and said, “Daddy, I’m safe too!” I chuckled as I agreed with him and then suggested that maybe we should dance a little more calmly so no one would get hurt. Eitan laughed a little and agreed to do so.
Trudy and I have been using the “Safe!” technique since Eitan started walking. We’ve always been of the mind that if we don’t make a big deal out of small slips and falls, Eitan won’t either. This technique has worked pretty perfectly for us. One morning, a few months later Eitan had learned to walk, Trudy and I heard him run through our hallway, tumble to the floor, stand up and shout, “Safe!” to no one in particular.2 I actually played umpire in that moment on Sunday more for our friends’ daughter than for Eitan; she doesn’t have quite the same balance as her older sister or Eitan and, while I didn’t think she would start crying, I didn’t want to give her the chance to think that she should.
I might not have been worried about Eitan crying or being hurt but the moment was equally important for him, as well. Eitan is a very active little boy who needs to be reined in from time to time to keep him from breaking nearby objects (or people, in this case). I have realized over the past few months, though, that I spend a lot of time and energy being the disciplinarian and setting limits, when what would probably be more effective is trying to redirect him. Eitan is going to be given rules every day of his life, so I would rather try to channel his energy into a different activity, rather than admonish him for getting too carried away. I would also hate to end up being the voice in Eitan’s head telling him not to push the envelope from time to time.
A minute or two later, Eitan asked me to come dance with him. I stood and joined him in moving to the music, taking advantage of the opportunity to have Eitan see me as someone who enjoys having fun, rather than someone who is always focused on the rules. Eitan was looking for someone to share in his enjoyment so I obliged. It’s not always easy for me to remember that kids are usually just looking to share their experiences with the people closest to them, especially when their desire to play gets in the way of getting ready for school or when there are small children nearby. Thankfully, I was able to remember it in this case and we were able to dance on and keep the fun going.
2. This was one of my proudest moments as a father.↩