Next to my dinner plate was a piece of paper with my to-do list.
A breeze came along and blew it off the picnic table. My son and I had eaten and were mid-conversation. We both let it float to the grass.
After a couple minutes I said, “Did you see that paper blow to the ground?” It was a real question. He’s 10. I’m old. We notice different things.
He smiled, without saying anything. He got up, walked around the table, and placed the paper back on the table. I pointed to the pen that had also fallen. He got that, too, and sat back down.
“Wow,” I said. “Thank you. I was only asking if you saw it.”
I explained that it wasn’t a closeted ask to pick it up. “Please never do anything for me out of a sense of obligation or for anything other than kindness in your heart,” I told him.
It’s a little-known fact, but bulls in china shops learn their moves by studying toddlers in preschool coat rooms. One winter afternoon when my son was four, I was bundling him up to head home when he got clotheslined by a one-year-old running down the hall.
“Look, you hurt him. Apologize!” the mom said to her son. Sweet and earnest, he said “I’m sorry.”
I could tell he felt bad. I said, “It’s okay, he didn’t mean it.” I felt bad too, in part because my son didn’t say anything in response to him.
My son started talking early and often as a baby. We’d be in constant dialogue. If he said “Goo,” I said “Gah.” If he said, “I visited my friends Fork and Concatrate at the blue house in Canada today,” I said, “What did you guys do?”
But as a toddler my son went mute to the outside world. He would only exchange words with me and his mom, and my parents on a good day.
I’d run into you on the sidewalk as he and I yammered back and forth. You’d say “Hi” to him. He’d look you steady in the eye and say — Nothing.
Most people were sweet about it, most of the time. A coworker shared how he didn’t say a word to anyone till age 6, when he started speaking in full sentences. (He’s in marketing and sales now.)
Stories like this became common, or common enough to feel we weren’t alone. I don’t like labels but when I learned that there was a thing called “selective mutism” I breathed a sigh of relief.
Other labels were offered that I didn’t feel like a fit. The most common was “shy.”
I was a shy kid who mumbled. It wasn’t who I was, though. I did it to cope. If I was quiet, maybe mom would stop yelling at me.
I didn’t sense that about my son, and not just because we didn’t yell at him. What I sensed about him, and how I explained him to perplexed adults, was that he’s deliberate. He’s a young person who would make his own decisions about when and how he would talk to other people.
We did encourage him, and during the summer before he turned four, he told me he’d been “on a non-talking line.” He said he was ready to “start a new line.”
I didn’t ask questions. “Wow,” I said. “People are going to love getting to know you better.” That fall, he started talking to other kids. That winter, he started with the teachers.
With the hope that my son would develop his social graces in time to not alienate everyone, I went to a child psychologist for advice. One reason for selective mutism, she said, is that he might not have the words to say how he felt or what was on his mind. She said it could be helpful to model that for him by speaking as if I were him.
“It’s okay,” I said on behalf of my son to the toddler in the coatroom. “You didn’t hurt me.”
I’m not telling you this story as my entry for Father of the Year. I’ve spent much of the last 11 years perplexed and unsure of myself. That bull in the china shop had manners. My son remains deliberate.
But like the sphinx that he is, he’d smiled. He’d picked up my paper without being asked.
At another dinnertime, last month, I had just hopped off a vaporetto in Venice, Italy. The boat and the dock were packed with tourists going out and families coming home. I was on vacation, but that night I felt like a commuter. My apartment two blocks away had discount wine in the fridge and a box of Barilla spaghetti on the counter.
As I summoned a pot of water to a boil in my mind, the crowd I was walking in parted around a woman squatting on the ground. I, and everyone else on the dock, walked around both her and her two-year-old standing nearby. She was picking up first one thing, then another, then putting them both back down, finding out how her two hands could hold the 12 items that had split out the bottom of her bag.
“That sucks,” I thought to myself as my blood sugar continued to crash. “She’ll figure it out,” I caught myself thinking.
I turned into the crowd and walked back. I knelt down and nodded. I cradled her olive oil and bottled water in my forearm. I looked the kid in the eye and handed him a bag of noodles. Then, me and the kid trailing, she set out down the Fondamenta Sant’Eufemia, the promenade next to the canal.
After a minute she had found a new arrangement for the packages in her arms. I handed her my items.
“Ciao!” I said to her. “Goodbye,” I said to her kid.
I told my son this story. “Picking something up off the ground for someone else is a great way to cement a friendship,” I told him. “And it’s a great way to remember that grace can exist at any moment between any two humans, anywhere in the world.”
I told him that kindness and helping people aren’t to be taken for granted. They are habits to develop.
“Do you want to nurture that skill?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. I asked him why. He said it felt good.
“Do you want me to help you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
I’ve had plenty of moments of frustration. I’ve felt sure I’m doing it wrong. And then I remember that while every boy and girl is different, not every kid feels safe to be themselves.
What’s my son made of? When given the choice, will he become someone who helps? Someone who chooses kindness?
He outgrew me talking on his behalf years ago. I’m still out there forging a path for him, but in different ways. More often, we’re walking shoulder to shoulder, or catching up on each other’s trail at day’s end over dinner.
Waiting 10 years to see and hear him choose kindness as a skill was worth it. And now — he’s asked for my help. My work has just begun.