It was a classic parenting fail. On Saturday morning, my son asked if he could trike down this big hill in Prospect Park. Looking at the long, gentle slope, I imagined him coasting down at a good clip in the sunshine, giggling, and ending in the cool shade of the woods below. And so I said, “Of course.”
I didn’t consider the sharp little drop at the start of the long slope that would provide him a mega-boost of speed, or that Felix might not think to coast, but would instead pedal with fury, trying to go as all-out fast as he could. I’m pretty sure I said, “Don’t pedal,” as he started to pedal, but maybe I just said, “Be careful,” or something less specific, less direct, more open to interpretation. Again, figuring that he’d gain a bit of momentum and realize — hey, I better slow down.
But the kid’s a four-year-old tricycling fanatic with an addiction to acceleration. He zipped past me as I trotted along trying to keep up, thinking how this probably wasn’t the safest thing in the world for us to be doing, when, in seeming slow motion, his trike tipped first one way and then the other and he slammed on the brakes so that the back wheels lifted and bucked him to the sidewalk in an accident that I can’t really call an accident, because I saw it coming; I knew he was headed for trouble all along.
For a moment, he wailed, and it felt like the whole park turned to look at us. I held him against me, feeling bad for not stopping him, and embarrassed not just for my oversight in particular, but on behalf of dads everywhere who were going to be branded irresponsible and careless because of my mistake, and I also hoped that he wasn’t bleeding too much because I didn’t have a napkin or Band-Aid. D’oh!
When I unhinged his arms from my neck and inspected him, I found a reddening scrape on the underside of his chin, a crimson goatee blossoming before my eyes, and a slightly skinned knee. No big deal, really. And with that assessment, my role switched from concerned parent to consoling parent and finally, cheerleading parent. “Hey, it’s ok, buddy. Just a little scrape. You’ll be fine!” Then I trotted out that famous line fathers have used since the beginning of time, back when little cave-kids rode past triceratops on tricycles carved from stone. “Walk it off.”
And you know what? After a half-minute or so of it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it screaming, Felix sucked in the cries, and — I could see it in his eyes, and with the hardening of his lips — stifled his upset. In fact, following the classic stages of grief, his emotions went from sadness to anger. “Why’d I fall? Why didn’t you stop me? When will this stop hurting?”
Good questions, all of them, and I finally became lecturing parent, a role I play all too well, droning on about hills and being careful and staying in control on his trike. As I rattled on with all the usual inane warnings parents give kids and that kids don’t, and probably shouldn’t, listen to, I felt amazement. Just a few months ago, this kind of a fall would have been the end of the morning. He would’ve been inconsolable, first frightened and then in pain. But with his little hand in mine — I was pushing his trike along at this point — as we strolled under the trees in the wood, I realized I had witnessed one of those rare occurrences, a moment, as exact as I could pinpoint it, where my son had demonstrated growth.
He had not let his fear overwhelm him, or his pain. He was acting, in the best sense of the term, like a big boy — having a moment, but not letting it carry him away into that dark place toddlers go, when they’re unreachable, in the grip of emotional turbulence.
I was so proud of my little guy. Of course, with this kind of realization came the thought that one day he wouldn’t need me to hold his hand at all, that eventually I’ll need more emotional comfort when he hurts himself than he will. That’s the way of parenthood. They learn how to mind themselves, and their fear and pain, though we as parents might never let go of that fluttering panic that comes with seeing your kid go down.
It’s not often I have such a stark moment when I recognize his growing-up. A moment that, despite the tears and hurt, I was grateful to have witnessed.