I play rough with my kids; really rough. Horseplay, in my house, is not only accepted, it is encouraged. I love sitting with them and reading books and cuddling up to tell them stories but one of my favorite things to do is to chase them through our home, tackle them, tickle them and then drag them kicking and screaming back to me as they try to escape my clutches. I hang them upside down and howl. I pin them to the ground and growl in their ears. I crawl across the floor like a primitive man pretending to be a primitive horse, snarling and thrashing after them. I pick up pillows and I throw them at their fleeing backs. Hard. I hit them behind their knees with said pillows as they run, knocking them to the floor. Usually they’re fine but sometimes they bang their hands / arms / heads / faces against the ground. This is the cost of horseplay.
They run and laugh and squeal and scream and hide and then beg me to keep chasing them. If I get tired they slowly approach me and say, “Get… my… fooo-hooot….” and then they wiggle and waggle their ankle at me just out of reach. It goes without saying that I’ve been kicked in the teeth and headbutted more than once. Last month my son stuck his finger knuckle deep into my eyeball… twice. That is not an exaggeration. My eye was pink and blood shot and everything went fuzzy for several hours. It was both painful and horrifying. Sometimes I lie on my back and my daughter jumps off the couch and gives me two knees to my ribcage, causing me to spit out a harsh, “WHOOF!” This is also the cost of horseplay.
My children love me and I love my children and we know that we are just playing and we’ve had many conversations about Good Hit / Bad Hit and how a Hi-5 is a Good Hit but slapping someone when you’re angry is a Bad Hit and… children just have a very interesting way of not only absorbing information and processing it but they’re also amazing at outputting certain… enlightenments, I guess is a good word… that hit you in the gut harder than their tiny fists.
Two days ago my daughter walked past me and I stuck out my foot and tripped her. She stumbled, once, twice, caught herself, turned around and gave me the stankiest eye I’ve ever seen. It cracked me up. I thought it was absolutely hilarious. Further, I thought that SHE thought it was absolutely hilarious… which is why I do it whenever I get a chance. I thought our little game was like, “I pick on you in an endearing way and you think it’s playful and funny and it’s our quirky little relationship,” but, my wife, who apparently doesn’t “get” the thing I do with the kids, she says to me, “You’re so mean to the kids,” and I say, “Mean? Mean? What is this, mean? Oh, give me a break. I’m not mean. I love them and I’m playing with them! They love to play!” and she says, “No. You pick on them. You’re That Guy,” and my stomach churns because, to me, there is no worse insult than being called That Guy. It could mean any number of horrible things but, whenever someone says it, you know exactly which one they’re talking about.
I say, “I am not That Guy,” and my wife, refusing to back off her horrible, stupid opinion, says, “Yes you are. And you’re hurting their feelings.” Yeah, right. Didn’t she see how I was laughing when my daughter stumbled? Didn’t she see how funny that was? I push myself off the couch and lie down on our floor, calling my daughter over to me, “Quinn! Quinn… C’mere a sec…” and Quinn approaches me and I pick her up under her arms and lie her down on top of me, belly to belly so we’re eye to eye. She doesn’t flinch and she doesn’t fight it and I say to my wife, “Yeah, she looks really afraid of me…”
I turn to Quinn and I say, “Quinn…” and my three year old daughter says, “Yes, Daddy?” and I say, “Is Daddy mean to you?” and Quinn, without skipping a beat says, “Yes,” and I literally feel something in my heart pop and snap like a crusty bungee chord. I want to put my daughter down and run away, hide in a closet, shut off the light and live the rest of my days in complete hermitude. Quinn, unaffected, continues. “You tease me… you tease me a lot,” and I just stare at her, into her eyes and I wish I had one of those weird whipping devices that the albino in The DaVinci Code had. I need it. I need to use it on myself. I am a horrible person.
However, since I don’t have that archaic whipping device, I decide to torture myself by just pressing on. I need to hear it. I need to hear all of it. I say, “Does Daddy hurt your feelings?” and my daughter, instead of saying anything, she just sticks out her bottom lip (NO! NO! NOT THE QUIVERING BOTTOM LIP! GIVE ME THE WHIP-THING! NOT THE LIP! NOT THE LIP!) and she just nods, her eyes wide and sad and… they’re just so… SAD!
I gulp hard and try to decide how much I hate myself right now. Is it like an 8 or a 9?
My daughter, apparently recognizing my weakness, decides to deliver the coup de grace with the most despondent phrase I have ever heard a three year old utter. She says to me, “You hurt me. You hurt my feelings. I take my feelings…” and then she reaches up and pretends to pluck something out of her hair before shoving it behind her back, “…and I hide them away. I hide my feelings away from you.”
No, no, no, no, no, no, no!!!!!!!!!
I feel like I’m going to puke and then pass out. This vision and view of the world I had in front of me is crumbling and blowing away before me like a castle made of stale bread. I grab her gently by the shoulders as my eyes begin to fill up with tears of remorse and stupidity and selfishness and I say, “Quinnie, Daddy is so sorry. Daddy is so sorry for hurting you,” and she looks at me and then says, “Ohhhh-Kaaaaay,” and just like that, I am forgiven.
Kids are incredible. What a lesson in humanity this three old just schooled me with. “Hey, Dad! KNOWLEDGE BOMB!” KER-BOOOOOM!
My daughter gets up and scurries away, leaving me feeling broken and alone. I call my son over, deciding to get all the dirty work out of the way at once. If I’m going to be emotionally flogged, let’s just be sure to break me completely…
“Rory… hey, Roar. C’mere a sec…” My son approaches me and flops down onto my chest, knocking the wind out of me. He laughs and pretends to bite my chin. “Yaaaahhhhsssss?” he says in some weird Southern drawl and, like tearing off a Band-Aid, I respond quickly with, “Is Daddy mean to you?” and, in matched speed he answers with, “Nope!” and I say, “Are you sure?” and he says, “You’re not mean, Daddy!” and I say, “Do I hurt your feelings?” and he says, “NO! You don’t hurt my feelings!” and there is a little wash of relief that pours over me.
Good, good, good, good, good…
I say, “Okay. Thanks, buddy. I love you. Go play,” and I stand him up before shutting my eyes to recount this revelation as he begins to walk away but… too soon. He doubles back while I’m not paying attention and drops both knees into my abdomen, his laughter the only sound breaking through my pain.
It’s just another reminder that, no matter how many parenting books you read, seminars you attend or videos you watch, there is no right way to raise children because each and every child is so completely and stupendously different. Just because you have two children (and this goes double for twins) doesn’t mean that you have two of the same child. They are people, like you and I, each with their own sets of bends and interests. Each has their own sets of needs and desires and wants and what hurts the feelings of one may actually be the fuel that powers the second.
My children never fail; they are unceasingly unapologetic in their quest to build me into a better man, father and human. They constantly remind me how far I’ve come but are sure to keep me humble by reminding me how far I have yet to go.