The man wears the hell out of a fedora, cutting a striking figure silhouetted in the dark on the sideline of the football practice field. He gazes toward a wad of middle-school boys running tackling drills in the dark.
My son’s football team, the Wranglers, often continues practice after the field lights turn off. Sometimes the coaches point their cars toward the field and turn on their headlights. It looks like a predator night hunt where the photographer bounces along in a Jeep filming the panicking wildebeests and the loping, hungry hyenas.
The man is a Wranglers father, just like me. Unlike me, he’s also a Wranglers grandfather. And a former starting defensive back for the Bishop Gorman high school football team. This guy’s been playing football and raising football players since forever.
So, tonight I meet a new friend, Sam. So far, all we have in common is that we are fathers who love our sons madly. And, while I sense we’ll find other things to share, too, the father thing is a warm and powerful place to start a new friendship between guys.
So, as the predators and prey continue practicing football by braille, we talk about raising boys. It gets passionate pretty quickly. And Sam keeps punctuating his passion by repeating one phrase: “I let him see me, and then I step back.”
My mind floats back to the time my boys first learned to walk. When you’re first mastering bipedalism, everything is a tightrope. You’re like a drunk kid at a college frat party. You’re like a bowling ball with the legs of a marionette.
You fall a lot. And cry a lot. You collapse wide-eyed, down and backward with a diapered squish, like an imploding building being razed. You suddenly pitch forward and face-plant into walls, because you don’t yet know that you can work your arms and legs at the same time. And, when you raise up, you bash your head into the corner of coffee tables your hamster brain forgot were still there.
This is why God builds toddlers so low to the ground. It’s for their own safety.
As a father, I spent the first several months of my sons’ ambulatory evolutions as Johnny on the spot. They would crash, cry and — bam — I was there to gather, hold, rock, coo and soothe away the ouchy.
Until one day.
I was on the back porch watching Jonathan toddle the badland frontier of my backyard. Sure enough, he pitches forward into decomposed granite and scratchy debris. He crawls back to his feet, blinking, surprised, contemplating whether this event requires tears.
And this time, I freeze. I don’t step forward. I let Jonathan see me, and then I step back.
“You OK?” I ask.
He sees me. His chin quivers.
I change the question into an affirmation: “You’re OK.”
Jonathan contemplates the possibility of “OK.”
“Brush yourself off,” I say, pantomiming the motion. He does.
“I let him see me,” Sam says. “And then I step back.”
Wow. The step back allows our children to step forward. Into their own competence. Their self-respect. To learn to self-soothe. To learn how to get back up when they fall down.
When your child comes to share his anger and upset with the other parent (Mom/Dad is so mean to me!), we side with neither the child nor the parent. We let the child see us, then we step back. We listen, dispassionately. A concerned, but detached empathy. The child vents. Then we say, “What are you going to do (about this conflict)?”
Many cases of bullying can be handled this way. We don’t rush down and threaten to sue the school district every time some punk doofwad makes fun of our child. We let our child see us, then we step back. We give our child the opportunity to figure most or all of this out on his own. Because there will always be bullies. At every stage of life. It doesn’t end in junior high.
Same with moral failure (cheating on a test, shoplifting, lying, etc.) We let them see us, and then we step back: “I’ll stand by you, dear one, always. But the task of facing these consequences and repairing these relationships is yours.”
“The teacher doesn’t like me!”
You might be right, Kiddo. And, over the years, there will be teachers you don’t like. Quit whining and turn your attention to your own competence: What will you do in relationships of antipathy and disaffection?
We rescue our kids if they are drowning. But not every time they begin to thrash the water and feel afraid.
— Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Mondays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.