This "Good News, Dad News" column has been around for more than two years now, so I recently did a quick scan of these pieces to see if there are some glaring topical omissions I should include in the new year. Nothing jumped out, but I did notice a pattern. Much of what I talk about in these pages are the surprises - the unexpected twists and turns and highs and lows of parenting.
All of those eye-opening revelations can probably be folded into the biggest surprise of all, which should have been the most obvious: My kids are unique - physically, emotionally, intellectually. They are different from each other, from me, from Kate (their mom). Sure, we overlap. Family resemblances and character traits get passed on. But there's no template, no grid.
I grew up in a family of five, so this should not have been a shocker. But there's something about parenting multiple children in the same environment with the same values and getting wildly different results that still blows my mind. I find myself constantly analyzing those differences to theorize about where they originated: Older sibling syndrome? Younger sibling syndrome? My tendencies handed down? Kate's tendencies? Classmates' influence? TV influence? Gender differences?
Though my kids fall under the preconceived and sometimes unhelpful categories of male/female behavior in many ways (snips and snails, sugar and spice, etc.), they also consistently upend those notions. Liam is more likely to surrender completely to his emotions and become a heap on the floor, letting it all out. Sometimes I don't know Maggie is upset until I look at her face and notice her blinking rapidly, fighting back tears even as her eyes begin to water.
When Liam saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the first time, he was up half the night. Maggie had little reaction when she saw it a few weeks later, but recently she kept asking me to come downstairs with her, pleading not to be left alone in her room. She wouldn't say why, but finally, as I was putting her to bed one night, I asked her if she could try to explain why all of a sudden she was scared to be alone. "Voldemort," she said.
Other unlearned, seemingly innate behaviors have been downright disturbing. I remember watching one of my kids, barely 2, single out another child in an indoor play area because this little boy looked different. I watched my kid stare intently from across the room, walk over to the boy, stare a second longer, then push him over. I couldn't believe my eyes.
Sometimes the surprises come in the form of non-behaviors that I had assumed were innate but actually need to be taught. To wit: Brooms should not be used to clean the dining room table; don't come upstairs naked from your shower when guests are here; offering the downturned, limp fingers of your left hand like dead jellyfish tendrils is not the same as a handshake.
Part of me thinks I need to stop being surprised about all these behaviors and differences. Naiveté is not a parent's friend. But this column is also a good monthly reminder that I'll never have this parenting thing totally figured out. On my bad days, the curveballs are confounding. On my good days, I delight in the unexpected.
-Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer who was recently complimented on his handshake. Thanks, Dad.