Tuesday, August 04, 2020

"You're Doing It Wrong"

The father knelt beside his two-year-old son as the boy was trying to put on his own shoes. It was a lazy, sunny mid-summer Monday afternoon. In the "normal" scheme of things, this father would have been at the office of one of the local tech giants, but today, as he has for months now (and as he will be doing for months to come) he's working from home, which is one of the stories of this pandemic.

The boy was being slow and deliberate, not yet succeeding in his self-appointed task, but likewise not yet failing. One shoe scooted across the porch decking as he tried to insert a toe. Now the shoe was just out of reach. He bent at the waist from his sitting position, stretching toward it, but it was just a bit too far away.

"Now you kicked it away," the father said. "I'm going to do it for you."

"No!" the boy replied. "I do it!"

The father reached out to push the shoe closer to his son. I could see wrinkles of frustration in his expression. "Okay, then do it."

The boy pulled at the opening to the shoe as if trying to stretch it wider, a strategy that I use myself. He lay the shoe on the ground, then tried once more to insert a toe, again pushing it out of reach.

"You're doing it wrong," the father scolded. The man again pushed the shoe closer to the boy, saying, "You have to hold it with your other hand or it will keep moving away."

Taking no heed of his father, the boy turned his attention to the other shoe. He slid it on his hand, making a close study of the process as if trying to understand how it all worked. 

"You are still doing it wrong. It goes on your foot." The father's irritation was just below the surface as he was clearly struggling with it.

The boy held his well shod hand close to his father's eyes, showing him what he had done.

"You have put the shoe on your hand, but it goes on your foot." The father's words were clipped through a tight jaw.

If this had been happening at school, I likely would have put a hand on the father's shoulder and role modeled informational language, something like, "You've put the shoe on your hand." I might have pointed out to the father that his son was teaching himself to put on his own shoes, that he wasn't asking for help, that his trial and error process was allowing him to look at the challenge from a variety of angles, to understand it fully, and that each thing he did was a step along the path to eventual mastery. I would have said something about it not being a race or that there is no right and wrong when someone is in the process of learning. But this was happening on the front porch of a private home and I was a mere stranger who happened to be passing by.

The boy giggled wildly, taking his father's words as a joke. Of course shoes go on feet! He then inserted his free hand into the other shoe, holding them both in his father's face, delighted with himself, enjoying the joke.

His father couldn't help himself. His tension evaporated as he laughed as well, joining his boy in the joy of a process that would one day be so routine he wouldn't have to think about it. One day, the skill he was teaching himself there on the front porch with his work-from-home father would be second nature, but now it was a process in which to delight, to discover, and through which to connect. Maybe this accidental joke was a lightbulb for this parent.

The father said, "You're doing it wrong," but this time with a jesting tone. The boy screamed in delight waving the shoes in front of him. "You are doing it so wrong." The boy was hysterical by now, screaming his laughter. "Shoes don't go on your hands," he said, rolling his eyes. His son was nearly incapacitated from laughter. When the boy then threw the shoes, one by one into the lawn, his father said, "Now you are doing it very, very wrong! Shoes don't go on grass. They go on feet!" This was so funny that the boy could hardly catch his breath.

As I continued on my way, I heard the peels of laughter behind me, a father and son learning together on a sunny mid-summer Monday afternoon. The pandemic stories we see on television are mostly grim, but this is also a pandemic story, one being told in homes around the world as parents and their children discover one another.


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