I took a seat in a row of chairs that lined one end of the pool. Like most of the other dads, apparently, I felt much safer there than braving the water before us. With each flailing arm and new splash, the pool itself was beginning to make the shark infested waters of the Atlantic - often home to suddenly limbless surfers - seem inviting and absolutely swimmable.
I'm not sure how it began, I have to assume without much planning, but as we sat there, a chant of some sort erupted from the pool. I couldn't make out the words - at first. But one by one, in no distinguishable order along the row of dads, heads began to nod in inexplicable recognition of the gurgled pleas and shouts springing from the choppy waters below. One after another dads were rising and moving closer to the pool, quite trance-like. Before I could completely understand what was happening, I recognized a voice of my own.
"Dad, watch this," roared the plea from my 5 year-old son, Ian.
As loud as it was, it was a plea that could have easily drowned among the chorus of similar shouts coming from the children around him. But it didn't. Even in the midst of chaos my child's voice sequestered itself in a quiet pocket of air where only I could hear it. I've no doubt this is evidence of how intensely he longed for me to notice his swimming abilities above the many others on display. Far greater evidence, I'm afraid, than my desire or willingness to notice them.
But because I'd discovered long ago just what it means to a child to be noticed, I knew what I was witnessing in that water logged scene of attention seeking that Saturday.
What It Means To Be Noticed
It was an early morning, much like many mornings before. I woke the group of ten boys I was responsible for and encouraged them to get their days started. For them, that meant get up, get dressed, and make your beds. To this day I'm amazed at how critical bed-making was to our program (Eckerd Youth Alternatives) and a group of boys and counselors living together in the middle of a national forest. To whom does bed-making even come to mind when considering life in the wilderness.
The previous morning I'd taken time to teach one of the new guys, Michael, the proper way to make a bed. Because we did indeed have a proper way. It took me awhile to learn it myself. It involved hospital corners and tight tucks. Much different from the bed-making technique I'd practiced growing up - and well beyond I suppose - which was to throw a thick comforter over all the sublayers of bedding and remove the best I could all the wrinkles and humps that might otherwise suggest to someone the bed was actually unmade. And that was simply the days I practiced bed-making at all.
When I met Michael at his bed this particular morning to check his work, because it was important that we ensured hospital corners and tight tucks were in place, I encountered a bed-making masterpiece. It was as if Michael had stayed up all night long wrapping the bedding around his mattress, much like Sargento might wrap a block of cheese - airless and impenetrable. Michael stood tall and straight beside his work, looking tentatively proud. I positioned myself beside his bed, but not so close as to disturb it. I stared down at the waveless grey blanket, instantly sure I could stare all day and not find a stitch of cloth out of order. Then I turned to him.
"Michael, this is the best made bed I believe I've seen in all my years at camp. In fact, it may be the nicest made bed I've seen in all my years of anything," I told him.
As I looked at him, I'm not sure what I expected his face to do, but it broke into an unnatural smile. Like it and all of its features were forced into an arrangement it had never before attempted, but one Michael willingly accepted. And then his eyes widened a bit as a hint of tears appeared. His expression froze there for a moment. The smile. The tears. It remained that way only long enough for me to know and to memorize what it looks like when a kid is noticed for the very first time. Even over something as seemingly inconsequential as making a bed.
I learned that day that far more than being loved, our kids need to be noticed. You may argue they are one in the same. I assure you they are not to a child. Many children are greatly loved but too often unnoticed. Michael taught me that day they would gladly trade one for the other.
Noticing A Child Tells Them They Are Worth Noticing
When I heard Ian's voice coming from the pool that day. And the voices of so many other children competing to be heard above his. When I saw my fellow dad's slowly rise and respond, when I saw them notice their children. When I saw the chaos of child after child begging to be noticed turn to waves of smiles as they were. I thought of Michael. I was reminded that far more than my child inviting me to watch his very un-olympic attempt at swimming, he was inviting me to confirm he was worth my time to respond at all. It's an invitation that too often and quite sadly goes unanswered by dads.
In the next two parts of this chapter, I'm going to talk about why it is so important for dads to notice their children. How in doing so we can provide them two things they need us to provide each and every day. Affirmation and motivation.
I hope you'll come back.