Our starting place in life is that of a human plushie; assertingly alive, cranky even, but only functional at being irresistibly cute. It’s why parents carry out baby chores and feel alone. A new baby isn’t an inanimate object; far from it. But the baby has all the qualities of something that isn’t there. Parents talk and know they’re talking to themselves. A baby doesn’t know it’s alive. The parent knows and knows things will change.
When your baby’s facial muscles allow for smiles and grins, there’s excitement. When your son graduates to a high chair, and the airplane spoon comes in for a landing, his laughs and wiggles are part of a conversation that will only get better. Fast forward eight years.
My firstborn is an animated eight-year-old. He’s hyper-aware, involved, and interactive; he does most things for himself. Gone are the days when Daddy did all the talking. Julian replies thoughtfully now, often extensively. My eight-year-old and I have conversations.
The airplane spoon? It’s a distant memory. Julian is suddenly old enough to sit in a restaurant, shoot the breeze, and not get bored. Sitting there in clothes he picked out himself that morning, my once poker-faced infant, Julian has grown up before my eyes.
People say, “It goes by fast.” I want to reply, “Not when you’re there every minute.” Julian was no daycare baby. I was the daytime dad for every feeding, marathon reading session, and walk to the park. My wife and I agreed one parent should stay home. It was me.
It’s a way of admitting, I’ve been improvising with Julian’s care since the beginning. Now, he’s in third grade. At times, this childhood season has felt glacially slow for a stay-at-home dad (with aspirations to get to the computer and write during his son’s nap). Though, I understand the popular sentiment. As Julian nears ten years old, as everyone says, it feels too fast.
I brought Julian along to lunch, not as something for him, but because I wanted company on a Saturday. We live in a small town. Everything is scare, from doctors, to clothing stores, to general things to do. Adult friends with similar interests are hard to come by. It doesn’t help that having small kids puts you in a friendless zone of over-obligated people. The amount of planning to schedule a lunch or a coffee with another father is mind-numbing. So, I took Julian along to a Thai restaurant. As we sat down, I thought, what can he eat? Julian is a kid. He likes what he likes and reacts vocally to everything else. There’s no Thai equivalent to a side of fries.
“Get the Pad Thai,” I suggested.
It’s too hot. It’s too spicy, I expected to hear. But no, Julian demonstrated a broad-minded palate. He liked Pad Thai. It led me to take him back a few weeks later. “I want to try something else,” he said. I was pushing the Pad Thai again, possibly the only edible thing for a picky kid.
Instead, Julian was set on ordering one of the entree-sized soups. I couldn’t see why. Most adults found soup to be a letdown as a restaurant meal. Soon, a deep bowl of broth arrived. Julian drew his spoon through it. We could see glass noodles, Asian vegetables, and chicken underneath. The soup glistened with flavored oils. “Too hot,” he said, quickly.
“Hot,” he maintained. I didn’t believe him. It had to be spicy. I dipped in my spoon and tried it. He was right. The broth was as hot as tea from a steaming kettle. I spooned a few ice cubes from his water glass into his bowl. OK, I thought. Julian’s Thai dish had passed the spicy test but eating noodles with a spoon was a higher difficulty level. The soup would cover his jacket.
I was proved wrong again. Julian discovered how to bite the glass noodles in half while leaning over the bowl. He ate all of his Thai soup. I had somehow gained a dining companion.
“Let’s go to the rodeo,” Julian announced on another Saturday. There was an air of discernment in his voice. As it turned out, my eight year old liked sit-down restaurants. He didn’t boyishly question why adults paid to sit and wait in a random place. He got it. There was something unique about the inefficiency of restaurant dining. I decoded Julian’s suggestion, which was the name of a pizza place. It didn’t have table service but the price was similar. It was a hip pizzaria for customers who didn’t look at the bill too closely. In my younger days, I had been one of those diners. Now, I was a father. I took him anyway. Julian had a preference.
Along the way, I noticed something pedagogical about restaurants. When COVID shut down our already-sleepy small town, our housebound kids didn’t see much of the public. No kid did. Now, our dining experiences served to help Julian try out manners.
“Leave your plate there. Put your glass above so you don’t knock it over. Put the napkin in your lap.” I gently help him to get situated in the restaurant booth. Around Julian, everyone sits up straight and chews with their mouths closed. Julian isn’t bored. He likes being in the adult world. Interacting with the waitperson allows him to give small, unexpected facts about himself. Watching the waitperson refill his water glass captivates him like a magic trick.
Eating out also gives Julian and I chance to talk. I ask him about school or the latest book he’s reading. It isn’t My Dinner with Andre. What we talk about falls out of my head by the next day. Often, I’ll answer Julian’s random questions about technology. Sometimes, we’ll pass my iPhone back and forth to play a quick game of chess. Julian loves studying the game. The challenge for a chess beginner, I discover, isn’t head knowledge more than patience. A beginner will focus on his moves and miss incoming attacks. If I win, Julian gets sad. If I don’t play hard enough, Julian gets mad. Not too long ago, I was teaching him how to read. Now we play chess. I assure him, he’ll beat me routinely someday.
We’re at another Asian restaurant, this time Japanese. We’ve eaten enough burgers, sandwiches, and burritos with his siblings. I steer us to a sushi and bento place. Again, I wonder if Julian can find anything he likes. We get him a bento box with teriyaki chicken. It’s a hit. Teriyaki is a crowd-pleaser. Suddenly, we find a thing on the menu that Julian doesn’t like.
It should have been the safest thing. After lunch, I ordered Japanese ice cream. It arrived on a plate in small balls that look like cookies. Julian ate one of the mochi whole. He made it past the surprise and didn’t spit it out. “Cold!” he said after swallowing it. I explained what he already knew. It looked like cookies but was ice cream. He wouldn’t eat another.
My son, turning down ice cream? I was relieved. My eight-year-old was still a picky kid.