Last week was a crazier weekend than usual. While I was busy trying to close out a long arduous project that was on the homestretch, we happened to have a couple of "social" engagements planned for the day. Now our weekend calendar isn’t quite what it was before the kids came along. If we do anything now, it usually revolves heavily around the kids or the kids majorly change our participation at these events. Saturday, we had one event of each type: a morning picnic as part of the local "mom’s club" that Cherise belongs to and an afternoon engagement party for our beloved nanny, who is planning to get married next year. In some ways, I was stressing this weekend. I would clearly be distracted by work–how could I enjoy things when deadlines were spinning around in my head? As it turns out, as in most cases, the lessons of fatherhood come when you least expect it and I got a double-dose of knowledge that day.
At the picnic, we watched a professional juggler and then enjoyed a feast of delicious food. Afterward, Cherise went off with Robyn while my Dad and I took Iris, who wanted to play a beanbag toss game. We walked over to where two young girls (maybe 8 or 9 years old) were in charge of the game. I stopped short of the game and Iris said "come with me". I said "no, you can do it. You don’t need me." I was being the good father, encouraging my daughter to show some independence. Well, she goes up and talks to the girl who was holding the bean bags as well as the prizes. She seems really nervous about saying anything until the girl says something to her, which seemed like offering her a prize without even playing the game. I see Iris decline and then the conversation ends and Iris walks back towards me. "What happened, Iris?" "She asked if I wanted a prize and I said ‘no’." "Don’t you want to play the game?" Iris could only respond with a sheepish "Yeah." Obviously, what we had here was a failure to communicate. This is when the Daddy gear kicks in. y’know, that temptation to run to the closest phone booth, turn into Super Dad, and save the day for my little girl who was clearly bummed about not playing the game. Like every dad, I love when I can be the hero.
But then I realized that I’d be fixing the situation, but not the overall problem (plus, with cell phones, it’s really hard to find a phone booth). Iris needed to be more assertive and I wasn’t doing her favors by bailing her out. "Iris, if you want to play the game, you have to let her know." Iris paused, thought about it, and said "Come with me". I gritted my teeth, ignored my heroic intentions, and said "No Iris. If you want to play the game, you need to ask yourself." She thought some more, turned around, and went back to the game. I exhaled a sigh of relief, glad that she didn’t just give up, and then watched intently. She then proceeded in intense negotiations with the 8-year old. After about 45 seconds, I saw the girl go behind the wall where you had to throw the beanbags through. I then saw three beanbags come out of one of the holes. Iris picks them up and puts them back through the holes. But each time, the girls behind the wall keep throwing the beanbags back. Suddenly it became the frenetic back and forth and Iris is having the time of her life. Apparently, this was the game Iris wanted to play. I couldn’t help but think that Iris’ satisfaction of the game was enhanced by the fact that she negotiated for it. At the end, she did take that prize ring but the greater prize was the victory of having stood up for want she wanted and as a father, I shared in that prize. It’s true what they say about discretion being the better part of valor. Super Dad could wait for another day–my kid can handle herself.
That afternoon, we went to the engagement party and Iris and Robyn drew a lot of attention from the adults. After all, she did look very cute in her dress and her shy demeanor makes her an even more enticing target. In fact, Iris has gotten into a routine with adults, always playing the shy little girl with doting strangers and giving morsels of cute responses; enough that they don’t give up trying, but not so much that think they’ve won. The girl has it down to a science. The same goes for kids her age–she practically plays hard to get with her friendship at times. But something changes for older kids. Iris always seems to really vie for their approval. That afternoon, when the food was ready, we sat at a table with three very sweet girls, aged 13, 10, and 7. They were very polite, well-mannered and open to chatting with us. Iris was enamored with these girls. She listened intently to every word they said, whether it was to us or to each other. You couldn’t even get Iris’ attention because she was so entranced. Then, while the girls were talking amongst themselves, Iris loudly interjected "At Summer Camp, I made a superhero costume with a cape!" It was irrelevant to the conversation the girls were having and was kinda rude, but it was rooted in something so sweet that I was taken aback. She really wanted these girls to like her and hoped they’d be as excited about her Summer Camp experiences as Cherise and I have been. Cherise looked at me and smiled, both of us proud of our little wallflower that had worked up the courage to share her exciting experience with her new friends. Our girl was coming out of her shell. But part of me was mortified, not offended by her rudeness (I do feel bad about that) but rather recognizing that, unlike adults, many girls of that age will not respect or appreciate what toddler does at Summer Camp. I remember being that little when I would share something that seemed so important to me, but the "big kids" would dismiss me in a cruel way that would scar me for years. I attribute my general shyness to incidents that happened when I stuck my neck out like Iris did, only to have it chopped off. While I know parents shouldn’t project their past traumas onto their kids, I wanted to run over to her, pick her up, and hug her and remind her how important she was to me and that I’d always think her superhero costume was the most important thing in that world. After all, as her dad, that’s my job. But I just waited and watched, very interested but very restrained. Then something unexpected happened. The eldest girl asked "what’s your favorite part of Summer Camp?" Oh my goodness, she’s actually playing along! Now I was ready to go over and give the 13-year a big hug (which might have come with other issues). There was only one person more shocked than me–and that would be Iris. As my little girl froze in awe, Cherise stepped in to re-ask the question and Iris did finally kinda answer the question. But her less-than-spectacular attempt at moving from monologue to dialogue didn’t hurt her enthusiasm for these girls and her quest for their approval. I couldn’t help but think that, while the tough lesson was averted, it was only a matter of time before she’d run into this situation again and the girls wouldn’t be so nice.
For days after that incident, I kept thinking about it. Late at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d be working on the computer when that whole incident would enter my head. And I’d smile at the naivete. And I’d shed a small tear for its impending doom. And I’d get up, walk over to Iris’ room to just look at her lying in her bed, completely asleep and still believing the world is a place of acceptance and love. And I came to realize that her "naive" childhood vision of this world of compassion and optimism actually does exist. It exists in this house as long as Cherise and I foster it. It exists in every moment we share as a family. And whatever lesson she learns outside our front door, my job is to make sure she never forgets that the nirvana that’s been painted for her will not fade like Santa or the Easter Bunny, but rather remain as an unconditional asset of the love I have for her and her sister–and that they will have with me. And with that, I’d head back to my late night work and once again feel good about the mutual benefits of the relationship between fathers and daughters.