"Dad, sometimes when it's dark, I feel like someone I don't know is watching me. Not like you or mom, but someone I don't know."
I'm not the sharpest dad, but I knew hidden in his words was something more than a request to stop and roam the Xbox aisle at Walmart on the way home.
So I asked him, "Are you afraid this someone who's watching you is going to do something to you?"
"Well, you know, there are robbers out there who steal little kids don't you."
I considered punctuating that with a question mark, but he didn't ask me a question. Not really. With all the courage he could muster he took one desperate shot at making sure I understood there absolutely are robbers in this world stealing little kids.
I felt for the boy. I told him I was always near him when it got dark, and that I wasn't going to let any robbers steal him. Not to be easily comforted, he reminded me that I wasn't around him when he went to bed at night, when the lights went out and the bedroom door closed.
This was clearly not the first time he had considered all this.
I didn't know what to say, but I started moving my mouth and a few seconds later words followed. I told Elliott it was natural that people are more afraid when it's dark. We are most secure in the things we can see. For little kids, it's their parents. I told him his mom and I know he and Ian are alone in their room at night, in the dark, so as parents we take extra measures to protect them. We turn on night lights. We've installed dynamite-proof deadbolts on all the doors. I even told him I sleep with one eye open in case anybody has a mind to experiment with dynamite near our doors (and I wasn't exaggerating much about the one eye open).
Elliott was quiet and listening, which always makes it easier to hear his wheels turn. Like many times before, the wheels eventually screeched to a halt and Elliott's voice took over:
"OK, but I'll probably still be a little scared sometimes," he told me.
I took comfort in this, because I think I knew what he way saying in his 7 year old way.
When Elliott heard I'd protect him, I'm sure he pictured a scene of me at our front door challenging his imagined robbers' grand entrance. In his mind the robbers were 10 feet tall and overrun with muscles - not to mention carrying dynamite - and I was 50 and overrun with fat. I'm sure the scene left him skeptical of my chances in that battle, yet his relaxed voice indicated he could deal with that. Maybe because what he was really saying was, thanks dad, I needed to hear you'll protect me. You've made me feel better, but if you don't mind, I'm going to keep you on retainer. You see, more than believing you can make dynamite residue out of robbers, I need to know you'll be available to tell me otherwise each time I begin doubting it. Because at my age, that is my security: hearing you tell me you can.
For much of the rest of our drive home I thought about Jimmy Forest, whom I wrote about in the previous two posts. I thought about him and the thousand or so young men and women I've worked with over the years who have absent fathers.
For the record, my definition of an absent father includes three categories:
- A father whose child never knew him,
- a father whose child knew him but started missing him the day he packed his bags and left; and
- a father who lives with his children, but in terms of involvement, might as well be listed in the first category.
I've had countless young men and women tell me the story of the day they discovered other kids had guards posted at their doors they called dads. In an instant they concluded they were at a marked disadvantage, that life had cheated them. Many adults don't take kindly to believing life has cheated them, so you can imagine how children respond.
They become increasingly angry at their absent fathers. But these absent fathers aren't around to accept the anger, so their children flood it over anyone who ventures into the channels in which it overflows. No matter how much of the anger spills, though, it regenerates itself through one raging storm after another. The stories I've heard are supported by statistics that many of these storms never die, and often lead our kids down destructive paths. Children of absent fathers are:
- 4 times more likely to live in poverty
- 7 times more likely to get pregnant as a teen
- 2 times more likely to drop out of high school
- More likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
- More likely to go to prison
My intent here isn't to paint absent fathers as bad men, or children of absent fathers as incapable of becoming wonderful adults.
Fathers aren't involved in their children's lives for many reasons. There's no point in labeling them as acceptable or unacceptable, because as far as their children are concerned, reasons don't dull the pain. Where a father feels perfectly justified in his decision to limit his role in his child's life, that child feels rejected. Our children learn early that two people are involved in creating a child. As they grow they discover in some families both creators stick around to protect and shape that creation, in other families one or none of the creators stick around. To a child, the difference in the two situations boils down to worth.
As I've grown to understand that, I understand more why that program director at EYA I talked about in Good Dads Stay - Part 1 was more interested in discovering if I was a counselor who would commit to staying for two years than figuring out what kind of a counselor I might be while I was there. He knew the kids at camp would overlook the shortcomings of a counselor who thought enough of them to walk beside them one tough day after another. Over the course of my EYA career, I saw many ordinary folks become lifelong heroes to kids for no other reason than they stayed with them through some challenging days.
This Book of Dadverbs contains 10 things dads need to intentionally do to be a good dad. If you're like me, you won't get them right all the time. But if you're a dad who hangs in there working to be the best dad they can for their child, if you're a dad who stays, your kids will likely overlook where you come up short. On the other hand, no amount of the other 9 Dadverbs will ever stop a kid from wondering why their dad didn't stay.