“You’re doing a great job, sweetie,” her father said as he pushed the grocery cart at a Walmart near my house. “I really appreciate you helping me.”
Every few steps, he stopped pushing quit as much, so the little girl could feel the pressure again — and then start moving again as she pushed harder.
The girl’s serious expression suggested to me that she had a job to do and that she was proud of herself for doing it.
When she grows up, it’s unlikely this little girl will remember this particular Sunday, but she will probably have vague, warm memories of helping her dad at the store when she was young.
It might not seem like a big deal to either one of them, but I think what I saw is one of the most important parts of raising a child.
We celebrate moments that are stereotypically important to children. We remember the child being excited to see a parent coming home from work or returning after a trip. What we sometimes forget is that those moments are automatic. Every child wants a mother and a father, so every emotionally healthy child is eager to embrace a parent on such a return.
At an early age, any person can fill that role. It’s not something that has to be earned. A child naturally reacts to whoever is there. Any random person can fill the role just be being there. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a tight bond between a child and parent. It just means the child strongly needs someone in that role.
In other words, anybody can win the affection of a young child who needs a parent to feel secure. The important moments are the far-more-mundane ones — when there’s not a rush of emotion and excitement coming from an adoring child.
The parents who are there for a child every day — and who make the child a priority — are the ones whose actions are going to make a difference in the long run. It’s good when there’s a person playing “the dad role” in a child’s life, but it’s great when that dad makes the child a part of everyday, mundane life.
Like letting a child help push the grocery cart. (Even though it slows the process down a bit.)
I know too many parents — fathers tend to be most guilty, in my experience — who treat a child as an annoyance at times such as this. Such a person might be happy to have the child’s exuberance when he comes home from work, but he’s annoyed — or entirely unwilling — when the child needs routine interaction in situations such as what I saw today.
Anybody can be there to get a hug from an adoring child, but a really good father is ready and willing to take a child to work — if he can get away with it — and teach the child all sorts of mundane things he’s doing along the way. He takes a sick child to a doctor’s office if he’s the one best able to do it that day. He is present to the child — and to his wife — in ways that let both of them know they are his priority.
This little girl will almost certainly not remember this day as she helped push this cart, but for those few moments, she and her father made me happy.
They reminded me that some of the best and most important moments in a child’s life are the simple ones in which a father simply makes room in his life for the child to feel as though she has an important part to play in her family’s life.
Real love allows a child to have a part in all parts of life, not just those moments when a child wants to adore you for showing up.