Parents talk a lot, amongst ourselves, about the unending work of … well … parenting, and less about the immense rewards of that work — when being your kids’ mom or dad pays off with moments of incredible “pride and joy.” That may be due to the reality that, as I’ve pointed out before, any mention of much else to any one else is met with derision, hostility, and other things that most of us are too tired to deal with by the end of the day.
Unfortunately, none of this is anything anyone wants to hear from a parent, because once you’re a parent you kind of cease to be a person, in the sense that you’re not supposed to:
1. have so much as a thought for yourself,
2. want anything for yourself (beyond food, clothing, and shelter)
3. have needs of your own (beyond food, clothing, shelter)
And along with above, you’re certainly not supposed to have regrets or misgivings. And if you do, you’re supposed to keep them to yourself, or face the flame-throwers.
There are things parents are usually safer off talking about with one another, because, at the very least, we do so without having to apologize for not being perfect, and qualify everything we say with how much we really do love our children. Usually, we give each other permission to be imperfect and credit for loving our children dearly.
But for many of us, those moments of “pride and joy” are far more abundant than we talk about, even amongst ourselves. I think that should change. So, here’s one of my “favorite dad moments” from this weekend.
Both Parker and Dylan take swimming lessons, and have since infancy — once they were old enough to be in the class. The hubby is a swimmer and even played water polo once upon a time, and felt swimming was an important life skill for them to have. I agreed, even though I don’t know how to swim myself. Took lessons, but never really learned, perhaps due to a fear of the water.
Also, both our sons are African American, and while the statistics on African American children who can’t swim have a lot to do with economics and even discrimination, the statistic that African American children are three times more likely to drown is sobering. We’re fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood that has a community pool, and a local Y where we’ve been members since we moved to the area.
It’s funny, how much having children changes you. Part of that’s because recognizing and helping them face their challenges and discover their gifts reminds you that some of your own challenges and gifts have been waiting on the back burner, perhaps for too long. This summer, I started taking swimming lessons. At some point, Parker noticed how little I got into the pool, and with obvious reluctance when I did, and I had to confess that Daddy never really learned how to swim.
Without missing a beat, he said I should take lessons. His Papa readily agreed, and flashed me a brief smile, knowing that he’d no longer have to ask me when I wanted to take lessons. Parker did. Then so we found an adult class that was conveniently timed before the kids classes. So I said, “Sign me up,” and I’ve been taking adult beginner lessons for about four weeks now.
The reason was really twofold. One, I need to know that I can jump into the water and get Parker or Dylan out if I have to. (Not that I’d hesitate, but I need to know that I can swim well enough to save either of them if I have to.) The other is different. Back when Cullen Jones won a gold medal at the Olympics, I made a point of showing Parker his picture and a news report about his win.
I didn’t go to medical school, and my son may or may not ever win an Olympic medal. But that day, my dad gave me something better than a medal: he basically told me he believed in me, and that if I believed in myself and that I could achieve any number of things, if I wanted it enough and worked hard enough. That’s something that’s stuck with me.
And though I’ve learned since then that sometimes you can work hard and want it bad enough and still not “win the gold,” sometimes the real prize is what you learn about yourself and what you can do.
Every Saturday we take Parker and Dylan to swimming lessons at the Y. I am going to sit Parker down in front of the television to make sure he saw someone who looks like him swimming in the Olympics and snatching a medal. I will browse over to him on my lap and told him that it took hard work, dedication, and practice for him to get there, and that he can do the same thing — be the best at something, win a prize or a medal, etc. — if he wants to, works hard, and practices.
My usual role, when we go to swimming lessons is to sit and watch Parker during his class, and offer encouragement, while the hubby is in the pool with Dylan, in the other class. We have a running joke in my family. Daddy is “dry-clean only” because Daddy doesn’t swim. Not very well, anyway.
…Not long ago, Parker turned to me and said “Daddy, you need to take swimming lessons too, so you can be in the water with me.” I blushed a bit, smiled, and realized he was right.
So, now I’m looking at the fall schedule at the Y, to find an adult swimming class I can take one evening per week. I almost certainly won’t be a forty-something olympian like Dana Torres. But I can do something for myself and for my sons. (And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them, if it helps them.)
It’s one thing for me to tell them they can accomplish something difficult — even if it’s just something that’s difficult for them — if they work hard at it, etc. It’s another for them to see me doing it myself. Maybe if they see me taking on something that’s a challenge for me, they’ll be a little more likely to believe they can to. Maybe they need to see Daddy jump into the deep end of the pool.
For all my talking encouraging Parker to face his challenges and not to be afraid to try things that are hard for him, nothing would make it clearer to him than seeing me face my own.
Now, my class ends just before Parker’s begins. So he sees me in the pool, practicing kicking, breathing, etc. Then, I watch the beginning of his class, shower, change, and come back to watch the rest of of it.
That’s even more true because my challenge is similar to his own in this regard. Swimming lessons revealed how different Parker’s and Dylan’s personalities are. Dylan loves the water. He doesn’t have any fear of getting his face wet or going under the water. After swimming, he enjoys the shower so much he doesn’t want to get out. With Parker, it’s always been different. From infancy, he enjoyed the water, but was nervous and even fearful about putting his face in the water, let alone getting his head under water. Even getting him under the shower took patience and coaxing. My boy is a lot like me, in that.
But he’s made great progress. He’ll put his face in the water, and his whole head under water. Now he’s moved on to the next level of class, where it gets harder because all the things he’s learned in isolated lessons in previous classes — breathing, kicking, arms, floating, etc. — finally begin to come together into actual swimming.
This weekend was one of those times when it wall started coming together, and I was immensely proud of my son. I knew from the start of class that he was nervous. The teacher was slowly getting them used to being in deeper water. It was as hard for my son as I knew it would be for me. So, I watched him keep trying, and gave him a thumbs up when he finished his turns with the teacher, because I wanted him to know that I was proud of him for doing something that was hard for him.
Towards the end of the class, the teacher took the students all the way to the deep end of the pool, had them jump in, and then swam with them to the other end of the pool. As Parker’s turn approached, I knew he was nervous, because of the way he fidgeted with his goggles. Then I saw his face change, and begin to tear up. He was afraid. I got up, and went to him, with the apparent purpose of helping him with his goggles, but I took a moment to whisper some encouragement to him, and even give him a kiss for courage. My six-year-old who doesn’t want a kiss from his Dad in public anymore, didn’t care right about then. Neither did I.
He jumped in.
I was instantly proud of him, just for that. Even if he’d swam to the side and just hopped out, I’d have told him so — because he did something that was hard for him, even though he was afraid.
But he didn’t stop. With the teacher alongside him, Parker kept going. As I silently followed him the length of the pool, I could see he wasn’t a whole lot less afraid than he’d been before he jumped in. But he kept going.
Dad teared up a little. My son wasn’t swimming perfectly, but he was doing it. He wasn’t letting his fear stop him. He wasn’t letting the difficulty stop him. He was doing it.
I thought back to an earlier moment when, ironically enough, I was helping Parker with something that was a little hard for him.
I didn’t know that schools tested kids as early as kindergarden, but they do. I also didn’t know there was such a thing as an “advanced” anything class in the first grade, but there is. In kindergarden, Parker tested above his grade level in math. Apparently, he’s got a knack for it that I’ve never had. I met his math teacher at the “Back to School Night” for parents of first-graders, and she said he was doing well, though he gets frustrated at times.
The frustration comes from a strong desire to do well. It’s a trait I believe will serve him well, but I worry about it veering into perfectionism, and I don’t want him to get hung up on perfection or become so afraid of failure that he give up.
As I walked the length of the pool, watching him keep trying, I thought back a night a few weeks ago, when I was helping him with his math homework. The teacher mixes in a little bit more advanced math in with the first-grade level math, and sometimes it got a little challenging for Parker. (But give him early first-grade stuff and he flies through it.) I kept picking up the pencil and giving it back to him when he put it down in frustration, and saying “That’s why pencils have erasures. Just go back and try it again. It’s no big deal.”
Then I remembered our last visit to the Air & Space Museum. Parker usually flies through, with a glance at the exhibits, more interested in moving on to the next exhibit than reading the info about the current one. (I was relieved to hear another Dad trying to get his kids to stop and look for more than a minute. It wasn’t just my kid.) But something about the early flight exhibit, and the early flight exhibit, and the 1903 Wright flyer, made him stop and take a look. I took the opportunity to show him some of the other flying machines in the exhibit, and even got him to watch a short movie about some of the failed flying machines.
I thought back to that movie during Parker’s homework, and reminded him of all those other machines. Some never got off the ground. Some of them did, and then crashed. Some of them fell apart in the process. But people kept trying. It was hard to figure out, and they kept getting it wrong. But then kept trying. Now, we can hop on a plane and fly to visit relatives or go on vacation. Because they kept trying, even though it was hard, and even though they failed a lot.
“See,” I told him, “If you don’t try, you won’t fail. But if you never fail, you won’t learn anything either.”
Then, while he finished his homework, I whipped out my iPhone, and pulled up a YouTube video about early flight as a kind of “reward.”
Then I told him that the first successful flight only lasted 12 seconds and covered about 540 feet.
I’m sure Parker wasn’t thinking about about flying machines, that video, my little speech over homework, or even Cullen Jones and his gold medal, while he was trying to reach the other end of the pool. Maybe he remembered watching me learning to swim in that same pool just before his class. He almost certainly saw me walking along the side of the pool, and heard my encouragement.
But when he made it to the end of the pool, and climbed out having made it to the other side, I felt sure he “got it.”. Even if he was still a little scared, he sat there looking back at the opposite end of the pool, with what appeared to be a vague sense of amazement that he did it.
I probably could have taken the time to tell him that if he did it this time he could do it again, and that it might even be easier because he’ll be a little less afraid. But fatherly speeches melted away in that moment.
As the class ended, Parker got out of the pool and walked over to me, shivering. I wrapped him in his towel, hugged him and told him how proud I was of him. And I was, because he did something that was hard, and even scary for him, but didn’t let either one stop him. I was happy, too — joyful, even — because I saw something in my son that I hope will serve him well when he’s older, and tried to nurture and strengthen it in hopes that it will help him in the future, when I’m not there beside him, and even when I’m gone from this world.
But that’s the future, and I plan to be beside him for a long time.
As we walked out to the car, and I told the hubby how well our son did how proud I was of him, Parker grabbed my hand and gave it a little squeeze. When I looked back at him, he smiled.
Oh, and we’re all signed up for the next session of swimming classes.