The other evening I walked upstairs to find one of my sons, Eli, playing quietly on the carpet in his bedroom. He glanced at me, blue eyes regarding me coolly, then turned back to his toys. Eli builds, habitually, utilizing Legos, blankets, stuffed animals, stickers, loose paper, tape, clothes and Magna-Tiles in single structures and vast multi-media tableaus. He once built a “Halloween party,” in which he incorporated a toy silver pot, a broom, three cardboard boxes and a grilled tomato. As an addition to the party, he built an adjacent “baby squirrel nest” using an easel, a box of raisins and his favorite blanket.
Sometimes, when the projects are big and incorporate large pieces of furniture, he asks us to leave it up overnight because he wants to see it again, and work on it some more, in the morning. The request triggers a slight tremor in his voice, conveying his hope we will say yes, his fear we will say no and his overwhelming desire to see what he created survive. We say yes, always, and my heart breaks a little because I do not know for certain what is happening in his young and developing mind but I know it is beautiful and I love him so fiercely that I fear for myself—fear I will simply gut anyone who ever stands between him and his dreams.
The other night, he kept his building project very simple. He arrayed a big panel of large Magna-Tiles—semi-transparent, colored magnetic squares—on the floor in front of him. He rearranged them in varying patterns and looked utterly content, just seeing which order pleased him most.
Strangely, this was a problem of sorts. I love Eli’s solitary excursions, and as a writer I relate to them. But my wife Lisa and me recently decided that we needed to recommit to spending more dedicated time focusing on each of our boys. We both work full-time jobs, and settling into play or interact with the boys on a daily basis, without distraction, requires serious commitment. The boys had reminded us, indirectly—by virtue of increased defiance, delay tactics that turned brushing their teeth into a 10-minute drama, and shrieking in tones consistent with having their entrails pulled out—that we had been slacking. For a little while, we actually felt upset with them, till we got a little sleep and remembered the problem was us.
We get that sometimes kids just need to test their boundaries. But habitual misbehavior is a kind of political statement: As citizens of the tiny township of Volk, they were trying to tell us that they were disillusioned with our leadership, and upon reflection we had to agree. They wanted and needed more attention. And so I had come upstairs to give Eli some of the alone time with dad he seemed to be craving. “Do you want to play with daddy?” I asked, “Or keep doing what you’re doing?”
“Just stay with me,” he said.
So I did, curling up behind him on the floor and watching while he played. I wasn’t sure, initially, if this would count as quality time. Shouldn’t we be wrestling or something? Then he inched back toward me a little. Maybe it was my imagination, but I believed I could feel him taking pleasure in my being there.
Of course, we—mom and dad—feel like dopes. We’re aware of the research on how much kids need undivided attention from mom and dad—blocks of time in which we are not simultaneously cooking, cleaning, working, or use our cell phones. But our summer was so busy, particularly around vacations, that we slipped and became too task-oriented. A bad week like that, of washing the dishes before sitting down with my kids, had become a month in which I hadn’t spent much time purely focused on them at all.
All of this was on my mind as I sat on the carpet. I watched Eli build—he was particularly engrossed with determining if he should intersperse the orange and yellow tiles or separate them—and found myself reaching out, absent-mindedly, to touch him. I casually tousled his hair. I lightly scratched his arms as he played. I reached over, rested my hand on his shoulder, and gave an occasional squeeze.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help but want to snuggle you a little.”
“I don’t mind that,” he said, without looking at me.
We spent about 15 minutes like this—him playing, me watching and offering small gestures of affection—in almost complete silence. Looking back on the previous couple of weeks, I felt like I’d been away for a while, only to return home find him waiting for me.
That night, he donned the backpack he just received in preparation for kindergarten right over his pajama top. Then he climbed into bed and dropped right off to sleep. He looked so peaceful when I kissed him before leaving that I lingered over him for a moment, believing I saw both the beautiful face—and the satisfied mind—of a boy who had just built a fabulous new creation and taught his daddy a lesson, too.