Family Man: Loving Mud and Monkey Bars
A simple day at the park with my 1-year-old quickly becomes a harrowing experience. Prepared with a blanket oasis of snacks and enough portable toys to entertain a preschool, I sit down with Jacob to watch his older brother play T-Ball. A moment later this junior Tasmanian devil speed-crawls on a series of mad escapes around the park, mouthing pinecones, plunging into mud, and barreling onto the playing field amid fly balls and high-kicking cleats. Each time I catch him he cackles giddily, showing off for the other parents as if to say, “My daddy lets me flirt with disaster. Feel free to call Child Protective Services!”

Every day I attempt to salvage a shred of my parenting dignity in the face of a child who continues to climb bookshelves, procure sharp objects I never knew we owned, and dive under gallons of bubbly tub water looking for the latest thrill. Is Jacob heading for a life as a career contestant on Fear Factor? God, I hope not. But it certainly suggests something essential to both kids and parents – the need to try, to experiment, to seek answers to the unknown.

Intrepid Explorers

Like most children under 2, Jacob is wired to fearlessly explore his world. Now that he’s conquered the floor, he’s inquisitive about life above the 6-inch mark. He recently took his first steps and it was amazing to watch him take two steps, fall, and get back up, then take three more steps, crash, and hurt himself. (Like war-zone journalists, we let him struggle while we captured the events on camera.) It was all a wondrous example of his innate motivation to succeed.

My oldest son is not quite so fearless. As Benjamin, 4, has learned about the world around him, he has developed concerns about a massive octopus from The Little Mermaid and strangers who pat him on the head. But he’s still hell-bent to investigate his environment.

A couple of months ago, Benjamin enviously watched two friends swing on the monkey bars with ease. He tried a few times and collapsed in a heap of tears and frustration.

“I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it anymore,” he wailed.

I didn’t say anything, but his hands were getting raw and, were I in his shoes, I would’ve given it all up for a root-beer float. But he went back at it until his little arms looked like they were gonna fall off. It took him days at school, at the park and in our back yard before he finally succeeded. The look on his face was unadulterated joy and pride.

“I’m Spider-Man!” he exclaimed.

But he wasn’t finished. A day later, his friend Isabel flew across the rungs like a Cirque du Soleil pro. Benjamin stomped in a rage prompted by a tinge of gender competition: “It’s not fair! She can’t go that fast! She’s a girl! Why can’t I do that?”

But in the next few weeks, he got so good on the bars that now other kids look to him as the model “monkey.”

Following Children’s Example

Benjamin and Jacob’s relentlessness to explore extends to a number of pursuits, especially the verbal. Jacob sits in his carseat for hours practicing his consonants. Benjamin scrawls his name across every conceivable writing surface in search of the perfect “B” and a forward-facing “N.” But their behavior is not rare – at least for children.

Somewhere along the line, grown-ups replace experimentation with cautiousness. For most of my adult life, I slipped into a pattern of backing off challenges. I’d allow myself to say, “So what if I can’t shoot a three-pointer or get past the first few pages of my novel?”

Through my children’s example, I’m starting to loosen up. They seem to revel in just trying things out. Why can’t I? I’ve never been handy, but now, I attempt to fix fences and assemble Rescue Hero Command Centers. It takes me hours and sometimes Benjamin laughs, “Jake Justice doesn’t go in the helicopter, you diaper head!” But in getting in touch with my childlike explorer side, I’m not only having fun, I may even be showing my kids that the effort – in and of itself – never stops being rewarding.

In contemplating the many New Year’s resolutions we might endeavor to fulfill, let’s follow one that perhaps covers them all. Let’s revel in the practice of being good parents and allowing our kids to live exuberantly. Let’s allow our children’s natural instinct to help us enjoy the beauty of a simple imperative – try.

Read more in our Family Man Archive.