(December 2013, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)
It seems the light has gone out in his eyes. Ok, that may be a bit extreme: maybe not completely out, but definitely dimmed. Maybe I am reading tooooooo much into the season of life right now, and maybe those shadows under his eyes are simply fatigue from life being a little too busy.
But I wonder. It is not simply the shadows under the eyes; it is also the slight slump of the shoulders, the little less bounce in his steps, the small sound of resignation in his voice, the just-a-touch of less resilience. Maybe it is being in third grade as life gets a little more competitive (not just on the ball field) and a lot more tacky (playground taunting/hierarchy jockeying). But then again, maybe not. Call me crazy, but I think my 8-year-old son’s heart and soul is under attack, and I think I am a big culprit.
He is 8 years old; almost 9. I put a lot on him. I expect much. I see so much capability in what he does, and potential in what he can do. I envision so much for his life. His entire life.
He’s only 8.
I am reminded of this at flag football games, as I stand there amazed at his speed and talent on the football field. Over and over again he turns certain disaster into something positive, even once into a game winner with no time on the clock. Amazing. I felt and feel excitement, exhilaration, pride. I enjoy watching him play. I scoff at the dads who are on the verge of a brain contusion as they yell in frustration at their son or the coach or referee because their son is not living up to expectations or the game is not going their way. “Guys, come on, they’re just kids; let ‘em play,” I think to myself in silent contempt. But to be fair, when my son doesn’t quite turn on the jets or make a play, or—sake’s alive—loses, I feel it. I feel the disappointment. I try not to show it, but for the next hour or so, I’m churning on the inside and am quite a bit grumbly with everyone.
It’s his life. Let him live. Let him breathe. He’s 8.
“But I’m responsible for him. I am the one who shapes and molds and empowers, and if I don’t, he’ll be in counseling because of me. For crying out loud, he’s a reflection of me.”
And maybe that’s where the rub is. I think at this point he’s too much of a reflection ON me, and I do not give him enough room to be 8. Seriously, what is so hard about putting shoes away, not interrupting, or doing your homework before five minutes before bedtime? Uhm, he’s 8. At 14, maybe we have a problem. But at 8, it’s normal. Yes, he needs to be trained, but not corralled, not wrangled. He’s a kid, not a calf. Too much gruffness from me gets him taking it too personally; that he cannot get it right; cannot please me.
And not being able to please me is what puts his heart and soul under attack; makes those things heavy, almost too heavy to carry, and so the shoulders slump, the step drags, the voice is sad.
I know this is what it is, and not simply the hardness of life showing up in 3rd grade already. Just the other day, I reached out to hold his hand, and he grabbed it like a thirsty man grabs a glass of water. He was thirsty for my affirmation, for my affection, for my love; not merely my pride or my pointers.
Lord, have mercy on me. Help me help him, but not live through him.
Have mercy on us dads. Give us patience; peace. Fill up our empty places we try to fill with the achievements of our children. Help us to shepherd, and not just guard; to care, and not simply control; to mentor, and not merely replicate; to unleash, equip, empower, invest... with no expectation of a return, other than “Well done, My son.”
Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist, a professionally licensed counselor and a nationally certified counselor. Contact Paul at LifePractical Counseling today.