Gentlemen: without any context or background, you already know that it is my wife speaking, and she is directing the question at me. I know you know this because you too have heard this phrase come out of your partner’s mouth. It could be that the loves of our lives heard this phrase from their mothers with reference to their fathers, but I suspect the truth is much deeper and darker. In a world where the phrase, “What were you thinking?” is used with such vigour and intention by safety-conscious mothers, there must be a training school, a place where women are taught how to shape irresponsible fathers into … well, I’m not really certain what I am being shaped into, but I think it is something nefarious.
One thing I am certain of, though, is that men and women often have very different approaches to the safety of our children.
True, true, when my son was first brought into this world, I held him gingerly, swaddled him tightly, and I looked angrily at any breath of wind that dared come our way. But as the diaper sizes expanded, so did my understanding of what this little lump of flesh could do. While my wife, Kerry, cupped Nicolas gently in her arm, I held him confidently in a single-arm football hold. And while she was in charge of making sure that his environment was safe, I was the one always looking for the next adventure, including such great leaps as the jolly jumper, wooden stacking blocks, and steak. I’m sure that if I had a dollar for every time I said, “Honey, watch this,” and was met with one of those shocked-hands-over-the-face “What were you thinking?” looks, I would be rich enough to hire a detective to find out where that secret husband training school really is.
I know, there is a lot to be said about being a responsible parent; after all, most of the articles in a parenting magazine support that general principle. But I think there is also something to be said about taking risks: for every man on the receiving end of “What were you thinking?” there are also the great new steps in a child’s life. And it isn’t like I gave Nicolas scissors to run around with, or beer with his steak. I simply think it is a good idea to take some risks.
Let me illustrate by giving the background story to the question that began this article. A family friend has a beautiful backyard veranda. One day, Nicolas was playing with his friend and came running up to me.
“Daddy, can I jump from here?”
Ladies: you instinctively know, without even seeing how high the veranda really was, that the answer is “no.” I have never in my life seen a woman walk by a child about to jump from even the smallest of heights without telling them it was a bad idea. Mothers know that jumping off things can only lead to death and destruction.
But I am not a mother, and I actually didn’t know where the jump would lead. As my son implored me to jump, I sized up the risk: how high is it? is the slope too steep? what level is my son at in his jumping-off-of-things development chart? Finally, I answered him:
“I don’t know if you can jump from there.”
Nicolas looked at me quizzically, as if it were the first time he realized I didn’t actually know everything. I had assumed his mother had disaffected him of that notion long before that.
“But Daddy, can I jump?” He needed a firm answer.
“You can try,” I answered carefully, aware that my lawyer was not present.
“But what will happen?”
“Well, buddy, you may jump and it will be fun. Or you could jump and get really hurt. I’ll let you decide.” I can already feel women cringing on the other side of this screen.
Nicolas tilted his head and looked up at me, squinting into the summer sun. Finally, he said: “Watch this Daddy!”
And he leapt.
And when he landed, he toppled forward and skinned his knee. It was a minor injury at worst, but true to his passionate form, Nicolas let out a blood-curdling wail. His mother came running and took over my son’s triage. When his weeping was under control, she asked him what happened. He explained through desperate sobs that he got hurt when he jumped. My wife, also true to her responsible form, began to scold him gently for jumping off such a high platform.
It was at this moment I was betrayed by my own flesh and blood.
“My dad told me I could,” Nicolas said.
And in that moment, Kerry looked up at me and said those infamous four word: “What were you thinking?”
I tried to explain, but the blood-smeared knee was pretty clear evidence that jumping was not a good risk. I tried to point out the hundreds of irresponsible risks I had taken with Nicolas that never resulted in any injury—the giggling child tossed in the air, the movement from the toddler slide to the big park slide, the evolution from pre-digested prunes to a medium-rare striploin—but it was to no avail. My son’s skinned knee was proof the damage was done.
I thought of this story later as our family was preparing for Nicolas’ first day of school. Once again, Kerry and I approach the event much differently. As the days grow short, every time she stops for a moment and looks at our son, she sighs, a look of smiling-sadness on her face, and dabs a nostalgic tear from her eye. Then, without fail, she says, “Our little boy is growing up so fast.”
“It’s a good thing,” I remind her. “Think of what he’ll learn at school. Think of the friends he’ll make, and all the books he’ll read. This is a good day.”
“But what if he’s bullied?” she insists. “And what if he has trouble with school?”
“Well, he’ll grow from those things. It’s a new adventure for him.”
“Before it was new teeth and first steps,” she says. “But this is such a big leap. I’m just so afraid he’ll get hurt.”
At this point I have the option of being a loving husband, loyal and compassionate, and blatantly lie to her. I could say, “he will be just fine,” but any of us who managed to survive elementary school know that isn’t always true. Is it ever true?
Instead, true to my brutally-honest form, I answered:
“He will get hurt. But we’ve got to let him jump. It’s worth all the skinned knees.”
My wife then looks up at me, shakes her head, and says, “What were we thinking?”
It really is a good question.
This article was part of a fatherhood column I wrote for Island Family Magazine, slightly adapted here. I thought it made a nice counterbalance to the relatively caustic parenting articles I did last week (see here and here).
Sometimes mommas encourage their boys to take daring leaps! But, truth be told, I use “What were you thinking?!” often enough…just usually about other parenting decisions my husband makes 🙂
I do hope people take this as a bit tongue in cheek. Some mothers are the risktakers, though as a species it might be more fathers. That’s not always good. My wife and I are always talking about risk, the next steps, and the next leaps.
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Absolutely! I think we all bring an important lens to the table. Sometimes it’s not always easy to hear a different perspective, but that’s really the magic of parenting as a team…you don’t have to have all the answers 🙂
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we have to develop both senses of when to be cautious and when to take risks. talking through the decision with the child helps them develop the capacity to think it through. if we think it through and just say “No,” without explanation, then they see both caution and courage as arbitrary and capricious. and later, in their teen years when even Dad yells, “What were you thinking?!?!?!!!!” they can answer more than, “I dunno…”
not to mention learning to psychologically and emotionally deal with the regrets that come from being overly cautious (“Aw, man, I wish I’d have done that.”) and the satisfaction of listening to that caution (“Boy, I’m glad I didn’t do that!”); the sense of accomplishment after trying something risky (“Whoo Hoo!!!! I didn’t know if I could do that.”) and the realization that an action did not have the result we thought would come (“Ah crap. Well, I need to do THAT differently next time.”)
our world is Fallen and not as safe as we want it to be. we do our kids a disservice in sheltering them and indulging them too much.
Brenton, I did not respond as you predicted all us women readers would. I laughed aloud all the way through it.
Of course it was not OUR 3-year old grandtwins you were talking about taking these risks with.