The Unexpected Way My Son Reacted to Seeing Me Cry
Joe DeProspero has two sons, a wife, and is complimentary birth control for anyone who sits near him in a restaurant. His writing has been described as “outrageous,” “painfully real,” and “downright humiliating.” He talks about the highs and unsettling lows of parenthood while always being entertaining and engaging in the process. Author of the dark comedy fiction novel “The Boy in the Wrinkled Shirt,” Joe is working on releasing a parenting humor book. He currently lives in New Jersey and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.
* After reading this entry back, it became apparent to me that my son may come across like a spoiled brat. Bear in mind he shouldn’t be judged by this blog alone. The story (at least the beginning of it) wasn’t his finest moment (nor mine).
I was mindlessly playing a board game with my 4-year-old son the other day. The name of the game doesn’t matter, or at least it didn’t matter at first. I flipped over a numbered card, moved my yellow game piece. He did the same, giddy with carefree excitement. That is, until he started to lose.
“Hey, you just moved your guy forward and it was my turn,” he grumbled. It definitely wasn’t his turn. It was totally my turn. But I was willing to let his oversight and inherent grouchiness slide. But then, he said more. He knew it was a word he wasn’t supposed to say, which is why he put his hand over his mouth to stifle its annunciation. But still, he said it.
He’d heard it from a classmate, or from one of the Shrek movies, or in passing an arguing couple on a sidewalk. It didn’t matter, because he was getting punished regardless. I snatched him up and stumbled over the game board, sprawling the cards and pieces across the living room carpet. Carrying him under my arm, I bolted to his room and dropped him into a plush chair. In truth, I had no idea what I was going to do. I mean, I wanted to be completely clear that using words like that (especially with me) wasn’t acceptable. But I knew that controlling my own temper was also a factor.
“Listen,” I started forcefully. “You do not use that word with me. The game’s over. Sit here for three minutes and don’t move!” My voice and anger were rising exponentially.
You wouldn’t think staying still for 180 seconds was much of a punishment, but like most kids, mine absolutely hates it. So, he wriggled around in his seat, intermittently sticking his tongue out, razzing me. That didn’t help matters. I started the bathwater, threatening a cold shower, before storming into his room to offer one last chance to repent. I was furious, I was tired, and I was completely and utterly out of patience. I knelt down beside him as he scowled , wearily uncertain of his fate. Then, I did something that surprised even me. I’m not sure if it was my exhaustion, accumulated battle wounds, or the photos of my deceased mother that we’d previously been thumbing through, but my eyes welled up with tears. And I fell, face-first onto his shoulder, partly so he wouldn’t see my eyes.
“Antonio, I need you to hug me,” I whispered, weakly. Slowly, gradually, his hands pressed on my shoulder blades, and there was this moment of serenity where the ominous, running bathwater suddenly soothed us like a brook. I sniffled and left the room.
What happened next surprised me even more. I ducked into my bedroom, pretending I was changing into my pajamas, while really I was ensuring the image my son had of me as a father with his act together remained intact. Maybe three minutes after the hug, Antonio suddenly appeared in the doorway. My wife, Sonia was next to him. He looked reticent, yet eager. And he was concealing something behind his back.
“Go ahead,” she said, patiently.
He took a few hurried steps toward me and handed me a piece of blue construction paper, folded neatly once. It was tough to read, but I figured it out:
“Sorry for being mean. Love you.”
This was his idea. Not my wife’s. She made that quite clear to me, without even saying a word. And something else became clear to me as a result: I’d truly connected with my son on a whole new level.
This isn’t to say that one apology is worthy of a throne, but what needs to be understood here is that normally I’d yell and a forced, phony apology would eek out of him 30 minutes later. Normally, I’d unravel in an unrelenting state of exasperation, failing at every turn to extinguish the fire, instead feeding off my own negative energy and creating a situation where nobody learns a thing. And, naturally, getting an apology from him was like extracting a bottle of Jack Daniels from an alcoholic’s hands. You might not agree with this new-found strategy (or, frankly, the lack of one), but this was the first time I can remember noticing genuine empathy in my son’s actions and expressions. In the past, he’d pour on the chaos, simply not giving a damn that he was pushing me to the brink of sanity (like most kids). But this time, something was different. And I think more than anything, he appreciated not being screamed at, and potentially was mature enough to recognize that sometimes, even adults need some mercy.
While I was embarrassed to have my son view me as vulnerable, if even for a few seconds, what I find myself feeling most of all is pride. Pride that I’m raising the type of person who, when he sees that someone has hit their breaking point, extends a helping hand. That gesture, no matter how minor it might seem, meant the world.
Surely, I’ve had to discipline that same son about 12 times since the writing of that card for various, normal kid reasons, but catching a glimpse of the empathy within that 4-year-old heart is something I will never forget. And I also picked up on a personality trait—this kid is already more comfortable expressing himself in writing than with spoken words. Much like his old man.
Oh, and the name of the board game we’d been playing before the time-out, the hug, and the apology card? Sorry! Can’t make this up.
I’m nothing if not honest. And although a bit embarrassed, I hope you enjoyed the transparency.
Feel free to join the conversation by adding a comment below or by tweeting me @JoeDeProspero. Thanks for reading.
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