This is what she asked me as soon as I came in the door from work, this literal iteration of her mother’s instruction to ask daddy if she could play with sidewalk chalk. Into the blissfully cool pre-thunderstorm air we went, squatting in the white concrete driveway. She opened up her box of large Crayola chalk to continue work on the art that we started several nights ago: her name in large block letters, being admired by the pointy-headed sun who, quite logically, was wearing sunglasses.
Nearing the end of the day of the end of the week, I sat down on the pavement and let her play. She handed me a purple piece, but instead of drawing or coloring I gazed vacuously down the street. I do this, as many of us are wont to do when we feel exhausted and pensive: I zone out and stare off into blankness as my thoughts climb out of holes in my brain.
After a few moments of this empty meditative staring, I felt her at my side.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said, turning to her with a smile.
“What’s wrong?” she repeated.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?”
She put her arm around my neck, the small wiry flesh gripping me with surprising strength to her torso. Her forehead rested against mine and she said, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“I know that, baby,” I said, kissing her warm cheek. “Thank you for your concern.”
Satisfied that I now understood the impending okay-ness of all things, she went back to coloring on the pavement.
There really wasn’t anything wrong in that moment; I wasn’t in a bad mood or worried or sad. If anything, it was actually a pleasant moment for me, finding a space of comfort and relaxation during an otherwise busy and overwhelming time in my life. So what did my daughter notice about me? What made her concerned that something was wrong? What appeared to her to be wrong in that moment, either for her or for me?
The best I can figure is that she became immediately aware that something was going on inside me and that I wasn’t really there with her in that moment. Which is true. Nothing wrong about that to me, but she interpreted that as there being something wrong – wrong with me. Perhaps it was a fear that she was alone, that my mental separation in that moment created a sense of anxiety in her for fear of being abandoned, if not physically, then emotionally. Or perhaps it was less about anxiety of abandonment and simply sheer puzzlement that I wasn’t having as much fun as she was. Clearly, to be seated on the pavement with a piece of chalk in my hand and not be coloring wildly meant something was wrong with me. Or maybe she simply had never seen me in a moment like that. I do it quite frequently, to be truthful, but usually after she has gone to sleep or left the room. In that moment, however, she detected that I wasn’t fully with her.
Children have an inherent understanding of moral ordering; we don’t need to force it on them. All we need to do is hold them in a safe environment of love and care and they will discover their own sense of rightness in the world. As I marveled at her interruption of play to comfort and reassure me, I watched her working on the sun I had drawn with her during our last chalk session. I had drawn the circle in yellow, adorning it with triangles as is the custom for stylized cartoon suns. In that moment, after intervening in my apparent mental disappearance, she was coloring in each of those triangles. Every one had to be colored in completely. Her attention to the symmetry and order was clear as she methodically went around the circle and vigorously filled in each triangle. Children desire this kind of balance and we see it in their art and play. But it is still play: for every triangle, while colored in completely and in a consistent order, was colored with a different color. Blue and purple and green and pink and orange and yellow and white and gray (yes, gray chalk) – for each new triangle she went back to the box to fish out a color she hadn’t used yet. Amid the order and continuity was variety and diversity. There’s an order to that, too: keeping everything fresh, refusing to repeat. Around the complete circle, colors vivid and changing.
My child wants to dance around the circle. She wants to be free and creative. She wouldn’t use those words, but it’s the moral center of a child’s soul to seek that kind of play. But she needs the circle, and I am the circle. Her sense of rightness in the world – that everything is indeed going to be okay – rises to the surface when the water is warm and calm and she can trust that she is held.
I, too, need to trust that I am held. That’s why I space out in those moments, to give myself a break from all the holding. I’m glad I can do that, and I don’t mind modeling that for her every now and then. But I am thankful that my child has learned to call me back to her in such a sweet and caring way. It’s self-preservation for her, I know; she’s dependent on me and if something happens to me, then she won’t be held in the same way. All empathy starts there, though, just like all authentic relationships are built out of our own needs. I’m thankful that she is finding tender ways of calling me back to her. What parent wouldn’t affirm such a compassionate invitation to color the circle?