“I’ve got a movie in the Orlando Film Festival,” chimed an old pal, “and I’m bringing Ari [his 6-year old son] with me. How about you bring Gabe [my then 5-year-old] and we’ll make a father-son weekend of it?”
Sounded great to me. I was fired up for our first solo getaway, picturing an iconic weekend of roller coasters, cotton candy, pictures with the characters–the full Disney treatment. I’d create a memory to last a lifetime.
We don’t get so much time together, just me and my son. He has two sisters and the three of them are separated by a mere 18 months (one of those sisters is his twin). Being outnumbered all the time, my wife and I tend to take the three of them on together, rather than parsing them out for solo experiences. So we packed for this trip with great anticipation, talking about it for weeks beforehand.
I couldn’t have scripted a better beginning to our adventure than the aforementioned film, “Hell Drivers,” a documentary about Evel Knievel types who crash cars at county fairs and leap motorcycles over cars, rivers, or whatever happens to be handy. Danger! Explosions! Gabe was practically leaping out of his seat every five minutes. “Did you see that, daddy?!? Did you see that? Daddy, how’d that gorilla ride the motorcycle?”
After the movie we practiced for the Disney experience at a local carnival–playing strongman with the sledgehammer, riding go-karts, stuffing our faces with popcorn balls and the like. The kid even won a prize in a carny game (I’ve never won a *&^%$ thing at those games). Strongman medals hanging proudly from our necks, we sauntered back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep in advance of the climax, a day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Oh the anticipation! We were the first ones at the gate and headed straight to the safari ride to see elephants, rhinos, and chimps (oh my). We rode the vomitrons, those pointless rides that just spin and spin and spin til you’re ready to, well you know. (We didn’t, thankfully.) We got drenched on the water ride, twice. He took his first roller coaster ride. And he laughed and shrieked with joy at every turn of the day. I have never in my life seen this kid so happy.
We stayed until they threw us out of the park. Too exhausted to consider the drive home, we took an extra night in the hotel. I was preparing my acceptance speech for the Father of the Year Award as we hurtled home down the freeway the following morning when I looked in the rear view mirror and asked, “Hey, pal, what was your favorite part of our adventure?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Watching TV.”
My heart sank. Watching TV? Was he kidding? I’d given this kid a fairy tale father-son extravaganza–wild animals, crashing cars, roller coasters, and what not. I’d plied him with all the treats he’s routinely denied at home. I covered every angle, threw my back out, and barely avoided throwing up. And the highlight for him was the idiot box? We could have stayed home for that.
Struggling to hide my devastation, I swallowed hard and whimpered, “Really? TV? Why was that your favorite part?”
He looked up from his coloring book and said “‘Cuz I liked snuggling with you at night, watching tennis.”
It took a minute to figure out what he was talking about. Then I remembered how each night we’d gotten in bed and watched the U.S. Open. He rooted for Nadal (I’m more a Federer fan). I explained the rules, taught him to keep score, and held him close as we drifted off to sleep. I loved it but I figured he hadn’t thought twice about it. He clearly had.
My thoughts turned to an AM radio talk-show host I’d heard years before who was lecturing parents on the false dichotomy between “quantity” and “quality” time. The problem with making such a distinction, she noted, was that you, the parent, don’t get to decide what’s quality time. The kid does. You might consider a Sunday trip to the zoo quality time. But to the lad, it’s the ride to the bagel store, alone with you that morning, that looms large.
And, she added, the only way you get quality time–those special moments where your child really shares with you, revealing something of themselves, is by putting in the quantity time. You have to take 100 trips to the bagel store to be there for that moment when the child is ready to open up.
I’ve shared that bit with friends countless times, snidely secure that I would never fall pray to confusing the two. And here my 5-year-old taught me the lesson anew, showing me how I had nearly missed the entire point of our weekend together.
I turned to him and said, “You know what, buddy? That was my favorite part, too.”