Learning to be a more present parent.
This all came to me in an unexpected way this week. Isn’t it strange how the simplest of things can needle you (pun later intended) far more than a good book can? Photography and cinematography does that for me, but this was an even simpler everyday moment. Here I was, just hanging out with my ten month old son, Jersey, doing what he loves best — hanging out and watching the cars go by. He’s been majorly grass averse so I decided to sit him down in it while he was already doing one of his favorite activities, hoping that this positive association might ease his fears.
A few minutes passed as we sat there like little old men, he and I. I swatted the grass before taking his hand to do the same. Several times. He still wasn’t having it. If I wasn’t watching, I would have missed it. All of a sudden he ran his hands across it, willingly. Instead of jerking his hands away quickly, he began skimming the grass across his palms, curiously. Other than the cars purring in the distance, it was so quiet that I could almost hear his thoughts. Hmm. Soft but prickly. Green. This is the weirdest carpet I’ve ever felt.
Maybe just sitting there with him, on a quiet afternoon, I was helping him to face his fears. I’d like to think it was because I was showing him that I was “in it” with him. Showing him that nothing scary happens when you touch the grass. Your dada will always protect you or help you face anything you’re afraid of! Or maybe I was just present and watching him conquer this hurdle independently. Either way, it was the highlight of my week and I so easily could have missed it. Even if I was sitting there with him, I may not have been sitting there with him. In the most everyday of moments, my son decided that grass was not the enemy. (Although I can’t take all the credit — my wife, Ami, has been working on this as well. If you watch the video below, you’ll see that just a week ago, Jersey would do just about anything to avoid touching that spiky green stuff!)
After showing Jersey that grass is well, just grass, it hit me. While I’m trying to show him that it’s ordinary and not something to be afraid of, he’s probably over there thinking, “This is just grass? This is JUST grass?!” With a face full of wonder, his intense eyes stared back at me. Saying that children make you see the world with fresh eyes can so easily becomes an empty platitude if we let it. It’s so quietly simplistic and yet so loudly obvious that we kind of glaze over it when we hear it.
As I reflected upon this crisp fall moment with Jersey, I realized how many more truths lie in that grass. All this, from some green shrubbery you say? Can’t the grass JUST be grass? I get it.
Here’s where the grass isn’t JUST grass:
- The grass is greener where you water it.
- The grass won’t stay green unless you continue to water it.
- The grass is a soft place to fall.
Mic drop. Kidding.
Justin, you’re crazy. Is this a post about landscaping? Stay with me, I promise this is going somewhere.
- The grass is greener where you water it. To become content with your yard, you have to stop looking at your neighbors and be present with your own.
- The grass won’t stay green unless you continue to water it. No matter how great your yard is, it can always get better. You don’t get a beautiful yard unless you put the work into it. Nothing in life comes easy. Everything you want in life takes work and if it’s worth it, it’s usually not easy.
- The grass is a soft place to fall. Without grass, our barren world would have no cushion. It keeps us from stubbing our toes and bruising our elbows.
Okay Mr. McClure, we’ve indulged you, but so what? You’re burying the lead here. Let me make a few parallels.
It’s about being present. But it’s also about growth.
I’ve talked about how I want to be the kind of dad that in another fifteen years can still run around and keep up with his kids. I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines while my kids experience life. As fit as I want to be physically, I realized, in that moment, that I also want to be emotionally in shape for what’s ahead. Good thing I have a lot of muscles. Kidding. I want to learn to savor everyday moments with my kids. To be present and mindful even during what I may think of as run of the mill moments. To them, they’re not. Time is flying by and someday my kids may not want to show me every little thing they accomplish. In the years to come, it may take a lot more “digging” to build that depth of connection and stay engaged in their lives. Everyday conversation may not occur without a bit more work. Thus, I need to continue to build that strong foundation by being present.
To do so, I need to work out — the muscle of being present doesn’t always come naturally. To be the kind of parents Ami and I want to be, we need to train for it. It’s not as automatic like it was when I was a child. We’ve since been conditioned, through school, work and well, general adulthood, to trade presence for busy-ness, productivity, ego and the desire to impress.
As many of you know, I like boxing and working out. Yes, my goal is the same each time, to get more fit. But what I’m capable of changes and expands. If I stop challenging myself, I’d also stop being able to maintain the level of physical fitness I currently have. I would not only not get stronger, I would regress. That same level of dedication is required for me to get in shape emotionally.
In closing, let’s get back to the grass:
- The grass is greener where you water it. Being the type of parent I want to be takes work. It takes being present and prioritizing time together. It takes flexing muscles that aren’t always comfortable. It takes going against the grain of big, busy, better and carving out the time to solidify your relationships with the people who matter most.
- The grass won’t stay green unless you continue to water it. I won’t become a better parent unless I continue to do the work every single day to become one. Ami and I can create those “big memories” like going on trips or experiencing magical Christmases but it’s being present in the everyday that truly matter. It’s the little things that really count.
- The grass is a soft place to fall. Life is hard. I think Ami and I are doing a good job of teaching them right from wrong but we also want to be the type of people they come to when they mess up. While we are first and foremost their parents, she and I also want to be their friend. I want them to know that we’re not perfect so that they can learn from our mistakes. I want them to feel safe enough to be honest with us — to tell the truth even when it’s hard to confess. I want us to be their safe place to fall. I’ll need to continue to set an example by being humble enough to apologize when I make mistakes and remind them that there’s no place they can go that can’t be redeemed. That as much as I’ll be disappointed in them not living up to all that I know they are, I will still always love them unconditionally.
“It’s a big world out there, buddy, but we’re going to show you how to get through it.”
And just like that, we’re back to where we started — I can’t achieve any of these goals without being present. So this post is as much of a reminder to myself as it is hopefully an encouragement to you. The next time your email dings as your kids fight for your attention, see if you can just sit in the grass with them and watch the cars go by.