Today was my son’s thirteenth birthday and we celebrated by going to the Smoky Mountains to play in the river. I had been watching the weather reports and it said it would rain, but by lunchtime, our city was sunny, so I was hopeful. But, as we approached the mountains, we could see heavy rain clouds covering everything. Ah well. The whole point was to go and get wet. What difference did it make if it was rain water or river water?
The rain actually helped us. We went to Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area, which is usually full and very busy, and we found a picnic table right away, right next to the path we needed to go down, and right next to the restrooms. This never happens. But the rain was pushing people out. We put out some of our picnic stuff then headed down to the river, rain sprinkling down.
The kids had a lot of fun. There is a big rock with a deep pool beneath it that people like to jump off. The kids had fun jumping off the rock, riding the current down the river, climbing on rocks, swimming. I hung out with the three year old. He adopted a favorite rock in the middle of the river and spent most of the time playing there.
Later on the rain let up and we headed back to the picnic site to do birthday cake and snacks. Then, after cleaning up, back to the river. By the time we got back, you could see some blue sky and the sun was shining. A couple other families had ventured out now and were also jumping off the rock.
I observed as one father tried to get his young son (maybe two?) to jump off the rock. The child was terrified and was refusing. Screaming. The father finally picked up the child and jumped off the rock with him, the child screaming all the way down. After they resurfaced, the father turned in triumph to his son, See! It was fun! The child kept crying and the father insisted that he try to jump again. Later on the same dad made a comment to his older son (maybe nine or ten?) that he should STOP BEING A GIRL and do a flip off the rock. The son looked angry and sullen, but he didn’t do a flip off the rock.
This family eventually packed up and moved on and another family soon appeared. The contrast was amazing. The second family also had younger and older children. The father jumped off the rock then swam below. He held out his arms and called to his daughter, Jump! You can do it! The girl who looked around six or seven, hesitated a moment and then took a flying leap off the rock towards her father. Lots of cheers and compliments.
As I sat and watched all this, I thought about how we handle these things. Our general policy in the outdoors is, if you can do it by yourself, without help, then you are probably old enough to do it. We told our kids they could jump off the rock if they wanted to, the weak swimmers needed to be wearing their life vests. All the older kids launched themselves into the air. We told the five year old he could jump if he wanted, but he didn’t have to. He sat and thought about it for a while, then grinned and took a flying leap. The three year old also climbed onto the rock. He was getting close to the edge (he had his life vest on) and we asked if he wanted to jump. He looked down at the water…shook his head. Nope. (Smart kid, he takes after me.) My husband encouraged me to jump as well. I took a look at the drop off and the cold water below and I agreed with the three year old. Nope. That does not look like fun. I made an off-color joke about why I couldn’t jump and then climbed down the side of the rock with the three year old into the water. End of story.
And I wonder as I think about the Pushy Dad. Does he constantly live with a feeling of having to prove himself all the time? Prove you’re a man. Prove you’re strong and brave. Does he feel pushed into doing things he doesn’t want to do, cause he has to prove something? And does he push his own boys, because he has to prove they are brave as well? And I just wish I could say, Stop Striving! You’re enough! God accepts you as you are. God made you the way you are. No one’s keeping track of how many feats of bravery you did. No one cares if your sons don’t like jumping off high places. No one cares if they happen to like music and theater instead of football and car mechanics. They are individuals. You are an individual. Don’t feel like you have to conform to some cookie cutter stereotype. Be yourself, and above all, let your boys be themselves. Celebrate their uniqueness. Stop striving.
Then I have to stop and think for a minute. What weaknesses am I blind to in myself? How am I inadvertently passing these things on to my own children? Cause, I can be proud and say, I’m nothing like that dad I saw today, but in reality, I’m sure I’ve got my own stuff that comes out in its own toxic-parenting way. And I find myself praying for more grace as I observe the human race around me. Lord, open my eyes to see what I am blind to in myself, and give me grace when I notice the weakness in others.