One of the great benefits to being a full-time father – and despite their time in school each day and the other projects on which I am working, that is still what I am - is the amount of time I get to see my children in close quarters. This time together means that I know a great deal about who they are and lots of details about their characters, preferences, and typical reactions to given situations. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who they are at home or when they are operating within our family context.
Beyond that context though is another matter. I don’t actually see my kids at a distance very often. I don’t really know how they interact with their friends at school or how they handle themselves in a crowd. People act differently depending on the people around them, and I am constantly curious what that means for Pip and Polly. It also seems like an important measure of how our parenting is working. Character, as the saying goes, is what you do when no one is watching.
As it turns out, over the past week I have had opportunities to observe both Pip and Polly from a distance, interacting with peers and playing out some of the roles we don’t usually get to see. For Polly, this took place at Skye’s sixth birthday party. For Skye’s party, her parents hired a pair of college-aged girls to come to their house dressed up as the main characters from Frozen. Skye got to invite six or seven friends to join her. Polly and Skye are best friends at school where the order of the classroom plays to Polly’s strengths. But it was interesting to see them interact in an environment where chaos was a prominent theme. What I saw as the girls sang and danced, ate cake, put on costumes, and bounced about the house was that Polly turns out to be a very capable facilitator. While the other girls all dressed as Elsa, Polly took up the one Anna costume and made it fun. She patiently waited for her turn to get her face painted, turning her version of the coloring pages each kid worked on into a birthday card for Skye. I was proud of her because she handled things so well, making herself present and part of the fun yet not going too far and grabbing the spotlight from Skye. That’s a delicate balance.
When it came time to open presents, the girls all sat together on the couch with Polly on one side of Skye and all the rest on the other. In that moment I felt like you could read the future of these two girls. Skye would grow into being a ‘cool’ girl, in possession of an array of up to date clothing and gadgets, following the latest social trends, and linked in to an extended network of other girls (The gifts coming in from her parents, grandparents, and the other guests – lots of Friends LEGOs and her own tablet computer - suggested that). Polly will probably continue to be on that other side of Skye, the one Anna in a world of want-to-be Elsa’s. I’d like to think that is a good thing. I can imagine how from that position Polly can float between worlds, hanging out with Skye but also going elsewhere when she sees fit. I can see her being confident enough in herself, in her smarts, in her ability to function in the world that she can be best friends with Skye without being overawed by all the stuff and the people Skye is going to have around her. That’s what I saw in Polly on that Saturday, and I hope that’s what continues to stay with her as she grows.
Pip’s turn in the Daddy telescope came a couple of days later. This past Thursday, the second and third graders at Pip and Polly’s school put on a musical celebration of Black History Month for the school and parents were invited to come watch. This was a smaller event than the big winter and spring shows, and it allowed me to sit in a place where I could easily see Pip through the entire thirty-minute production. He was standing in the second row, his red polo shirt buttoned all the way up and tucked tightly into his black pants, his white tennis shoes pointing out below in a slightly duck-like angle. Ava’d recently cut his hair so he looked clean and trimmed all around, like a golf pro making his first appearance on tour. This impression didn’t change when he started to sing. His eyebrows crunched into a slight scowl as he focused intensely on getting the words, the notes, and the corresponding dance moves all working together. He worked earnestly to get every bit right and the effort involved gave his movements a halting quality. Instead of feeling and inhabiting the rhythms as they came, it seemed more like he was hunting them, stalking after their every measure in a determined effort to get everything right.
This image seems to foretell something of his future as well. He didn’t joke with the girl to his right or whisper things to one of his friends in front of him. He was focused on the task to the exclusion of everything else. He wasn’t stand-offish. He wasn’t aloof. But he was slightly uptight, earnestly hard-working, and nerdy in that clean-cut, teacher’s pet kind of way. Only when the show was done did he momentarily break from this state, sliding his chin down into his shirt and popping it out again with a little grin on his face. I might have wished to see him enjoy things a little bit more, but given the multitudinous array of other things he could be, I’ll take this version any time.