I just had to send my big kids text messages about how much I love them (my 5-year old’s iPhone doesn’t have cell service). They’re at school and they might get in trouble for it, but given what I just witnessed, I had to reach out to them.
I basically just watched a family completely wreck their 7-year old. What an entire family was doing walking their dogs during the middle of a Thursday I’m not sure, but what got my attention was a gruff sounding “stop walking a mile behind everyone else or I’ll beat you in front of everyone.”
I heard this through an open window and turned my attention toward the awfulness I’d just heard, to see an older father of three berating who appeared to be his youngest, and apparently for walking too far behind the rest. Keep in mind the “everyone” mentioned was in fact an empty suburban street.
The child predictably responded negatively to this outburst which prompted a response from his mother who seemed to be leaning in to console the child. But no, she just wondered loudly if he was going to cry now and “act like an asshole.”
Now fully aware of this nonsense outside, I resolved myself to watching intently through the open window (I can be a scary-looking dude if I want to be) making sure they’d see me witness their dysfunction if they looked over, but no such luck. As they crossed the street and continued on their way, the youngest child obviously and understandably wanted nothing to do with his family, picked up some sticks and threw them against a tree and kicked some leaves, while falling behind the group again.
This is where my heart truly broke for this boy. As he wiped his tears and vented his frustrations on foliage, I sensed such resentment and hurt in his heart that I decided I’d watch them for as long as I could and that if his father returned to actually hit his child, I’d be out the door in a heartbeat to end the abuse. I understood why this child was lagging behind but I simultaneously ached for him to catch up so as not to incur his father’s irrational wrath.
But, the sad thing is, I’d already witnessed the abuse: it’d happened long before they appeared at my window and it will continue long after they’re home from walking the dogs. There’s a good chance I did this boy a disservice by not getting involved until a certain abuse threshold had been met, but at the same moment, I was feeling a deep shame for my own previous actions as a young father, and was struggling with that.
As a child, I didn’t have a great example of how to deal with children from my own father, but at least I had a sympathetic mother and I was never, ever spoken to in the way this boy was.
I had children early in life and my 20s were spent dealing with a metric ton of anxiety and depression issues while also raising young kids and while I now have my mental health under control (hooray for health insurance), there was too much familiar about how the parents on that sidewalk were behaving that I was essentially stunned into a very quick audit of my older children now in their tween/teen years and my parenting style in my 30s: I came away proud of who I am now as a father, and found a new resolve to cherish my children every day, because my life is owed to them, not the other way around. My 5-year old and I have such a great relationship that I wasn’t even worried about him. This boy and my youngest shared nothing in common father-wise and for that I’m proud.
My only regret is that I didn’t act in time to help this boy. It looked to me like all he needed was a hug, a smile, and someone to hold his hand.