I want to say upfront I think my son Dylan is a legend. His passion, loving nature, curiosity and willingness to be himself makes me incredibly proud. Plus, the other day he gave me a dead leg with his head – something no one else has managed in over 30 years of sport, school and brotherhood. That deserves respect.
But one thing he has sometimes struggled with is empathy, particularly as a toddler. Back then (and even to some extent now), it often didn’t occur to him to step into other people’s shoes, not due to any kind of deliberate malfeasance, just because, well, it wasn’t built into his psyche.
As a result, he was the kind of child who often unintentionally made me (and my wife, Laura) look like a bad parent. Instead of running around other kids, he would run through and/or over them without even noticing. His public meltdowns came with a side order of molten lava. And he never, ever took an instruction without an explanation.
It made for some embarrassing and frustrating moments, along with plenty of ‘looks’ – you know the kind – from fellow parents, passengers and café patrons. That bloke really can’t control his kid, they were thinking. Maybe you should try disciplining him – that advice was spoken out loud by a ‘helpful’ random stranger as if the thought had never crossed my mind. Your child is attacking my daughter – Laura got this from some prissy bitch whose child Dylan has merely crawled past inside a tunnel. And lots more.
Admittedly, I probably was doing something wrong. But those people who sneered, commented or tutted knew nothing about Dylan and what he needed from his mum and dad. I was also just doing what I thought was right for him and me. Pretty much any parent knows how that feels, including my poor mum judging by some of the stories of my own behaviour she has shared!
Fast forward a couple of years and Dylan is blossoming into a lovely little boy. We’re even experiencing the kind of positive school parents’ evenings that used to feel about as likely as me building the next Hadron Collider. We also now have Nathan, nearly 3 and a very different character indeed.
Nath is lucky enough to be hardwired with the empathetic instincts Dylan has, in contrast, had to work to acquire (and kudos to Dylan for doing it). It’s largely a bonus of genetics but it means when I take him to a football class or nursery or pretty much anywhere, he rarely gets involved in any kind of confrontation and tends to say ‘sorry’ straight away if anything goes wrong. What’s more, I suddenly look like a great parent. I’m not. I’m the same as before. The boys are just very different people – one of myriad reasons I love them both so much. In some ways, it’s highly unfair on Dylan too. Although fast forward 20 years and he will be nobody’s fool. Nath on the other hand may well find himself being dragged around the shops by his partner carrying their bags.
You see, just as this post is not a slight on Dylan, it is also by no means an ode to his little brother. Nath has his fair share of annoying habits and challenging personality traits. The point is they just tend to be less noticeable to the casual observer. So, by and large, I find myself in the uncharted territory of being the dad whose kid is happily getting on with things while others grapple with volcanic tantrums, deal with flagrant insubordination and constantly intervene in sharing battles.
A little while ago, I wrote about my shame at breaking the first rule of parent club by reflexively judging an irate father in a café. Likewise, it’s impossible and unforgivable to label a child good, bad, naughty or anything else based on a fleeting experience with them in a playground or the like.
No kid wants to be in trouble (I think/hope!). It’s just sometimes, they are. When, where and how often comes down to a) timing; and b) the uniquely brilliant characteristics that make them who they are. All children are magic and none of them come with an operating manual. I guess that’s the beauty of it.