As Jimmy's fifth birthday approached, he and his parents discussed the options for a celebration. He could have a bowling party, a sports-themed party, or a Chuck E. Cheese's party. All would include lots of friends and lots of presents to open. But Jimmy chose none of the above. What he really wanted was to go to the movies with one friend -- my daughter.
I asked my 5-year-old, Chelsea, about this precocious request. She said she couldn't wait to go out with Jimmy, whom she's taken to calling "Jimbo." Her eyes light up every morning when she sees him, and she talks about him almost every night at bedtime.
Maybe it's all the princess movies, dolls, and merchandise that turns young girls (including mine) into wannabe Cinderellas, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their Prince Charming.
I can vividly remember my older daughter, Katie, now 8, greeting my return home from work during her preschool years with the following command: "Daddy, you need to come upstairs with me right now so we can get married." And off we'd go, to exchange our vows and dance at the royal wedding in her bedroom.
Chelsea also seems to buy into the Disney-fied view that the love of her life is but a heartbeat away. She's swallowed a heavy dose of High School Musical medicine too, and Jimmy is the Troy to her Gabriella.
On a recent Sunday, they could be seen drawing side by side in the pew at church. For Valentine's Day, Jimmy gave Chelsea a necklace with Tinker Bell on it. When we explained that she and Jimmy will be in different schools for kindergarten because they live in separate towns, she bawled.
There will come a time, sooner than I'd like, when the word boyfriend will send a shiver down my spine. In anticipation of this, I've developed a three-point plan for the first suitor either of my girls brings home when they're teenagers. First, he needs to come over and do homework with her, at the kitchen table, at least two nights a week. Next, he needs to come out to dinner with us a few times. Finally, he needs to spend a weekend helping me paint the basement. Then we'll see.
I teach high-school English, and sometimes in class we chat about parent-child relationships. I tell my students that when my girls are old enough to date, I'll call or text them every 15 minutes. But the kids shake their heads at me. "Mr. Hynes," they warn, "you know that will only make them rebel. You have to trust them." They're right, of course, but it's a father's instinct to worry about his daughters' well-being.
For now, I just have to deal with Jimmy, whom I'm fairly confident I can handle. While Chelsea professes her love for him, I think she's merely parroting what she's heard Ariel and Belle say about their fairy-tale beaux. Soon enough, she'll graduate from the preschool-romance stage. But as much as Jimmy signifies that my day of reckoning is coming (and far sooner than I'd like), I'll miss what he and Chelsea have right now.
The two of them communicate without even talking, two kids who have forged a special partnership through a critical stage of growth and development. They've helped each other learn to socialize, play fair, and look out for a friend as you would a family member. And the way they hug shows none of the normal awkwardness of kids this age. It's truly something to see.
So yes, Chelsea did go to the movies with Jimmy for his birthday celebration. My wife, Amy, came along, as did Jimmy's mom. From what I'm told, Jimmy neither inched his arm around Chelsea's shoulder nor tried to whisper sweet nothings into her ear (although they did share a soda during the film).
Afterward, I joined them at a hibachi steakhouse for dinner. They told me about the dragons they'd seen on the screen and the Swedish Fish they'd stuffed into their mouth. Chelsea and Jimmy gobbled up their kids' meals at the restaurant, posed for some crazy-face pictures, and asked their mommies to take them to the bathroom.
As we paid the bill and stood up to leave, I noticed that Jimmy was looking a little bit weary. Prince Charming needed a lift. So for the first (and probably last) time in my life, I offered to carry my daughter's boyfriend to the car after his date.
Jimmy told his mom that it had been his best birthday ever. Chelsea couldn't stop smiling. The kids said their goodbyes, then crawled into their respective booster seats for the short drive home. For now, all was right in the world of boyfriends. No father fears, no three-point plans. Just one priceless friendship.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.