When My Son Looks Over His Shoulder

by Michael D. Hargrove     

My oldest son, Zachary, seemed to be getting worse.

He is a great kid, quite big compared to other seven year olds, with an equally big heart and a wonderful laugh. Lately, though, Zach seemed to be sad, withdrawn, and grumpy. He whined a lot more too. Every day he seemed to become more and more negative, even occasionally being mean to his younger brother, Jeffrey, which, unlike other kids his age, was completely out of character for Zach. My numerous inquiries into how he was feeling and what was wrong were always met with the same sad; “I’m okay, Dad.”

Finally, his despondent attitude became much worse and more the norm rather than the exception. I realized something had to be done. “You teach this state management stuff to perfect strangers,” I thought to myself “but you can’t even help your own child? C’mon Michael, walk your talk!” So, I asked Zach to join me alone in our living room to have a “heart to heart chat.”

Now announcing; “Let’s have a heart to heart chat” to any child, let alone one who presently is prone to the fatalistic, is not the best of ways to embark on any meaningful exchange. Zach’s sullen expression, pathetic groan, and lethargic lope into the living room was my first clue to that fact. Still, determined to resolve this problem, I plodded on with all the finesse of a tornado.

“What’s the matter with you, Son? You’re always in such a bad mood lately. What’s wrong?” Zach’s response was somewhat predictable; “I’m okay, Dad.”

I pressed on, “You just haven’t been yourself, Zach. Is there something wrong at school or maybe with one of your classmates or could it be the baseball team?”

“Everything’s fine, Dad,” he said quietly, “Can I go now?”

Becoming frustrated, I said in a harsh manner, “Look, something’s making you sad, what is it?!” He looked at me with what was probably the saddest eyes I ever recall seeing and said, barely audible, “I just had a bad day is all.”

Now maybe it was the feeling of frustration or ineptitude or the simple pig-headedness of wanting to “fix it no matter what” but whatever it was that was that was in my way, I simply didn’t see how disheartened and vulnerable my lovely little boy was at that moment. So I said to him, with the dismay and insensitivity only a father can master, “I don’t understand how a kid can have so many bad days in a row? I mean, you’re just a kid!”  Probably the wrong thing to say. Certainly the wrong way to say it.

With a curious mix of disgust and tears in his eyes, Zach’s reply hit me with a force that literally made me wince, “Of course you don’t understand, Dad, I don’t expect you  to understand how anyone  can have a bad day!”

This time I heard my son. I heard the hurt in his voice. I heard his aloneness. I saw the tears welling up in his eyes. And I knew he was right, at that precise moment, I didn’t  understand him! I recognized this as a magic moment for me and my child. So, in a quieter, much more compassionate voice I asked, “Zach, what makes you say that about me? And what do you mean by a bad day?”

“Whenever I ask you how your day went,” he replied, “you always  say “Perfect!” or “Great!” or “Fantastic!.” I don’t think you’ve ever had a bad day in your whole life!”

There was a long silence. I know he expected me to come out with some self-proclaimed words of wisdom or some long explanation. Instead, I just listened. I knew it was time for me to show Zachary that I value him and that I want to understand him. So I just listened. I listened as he told me what a bad day means to him. I listened to his definitions, his feelings, his world. I didn’t interrupt, I didn’t question, I didn’t judge. I just listened.

Then I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to say. With a shake of his head, he indicated that he was done. So I said, “Let’s make sure I heard you right, okay?” Zach nodded and I slowly paraphrased back to my son everything he told me. When we both were satisfied that I really did get what he had said, he was smiling slightly and was at ease. He felt truly valued and understood.

Then I asked him, “Would you like to know what I mean by a perfect day?”

He nodded “yes” and listened intently, really wanting to know. I explained, “We all influence the way we feel by the questions we ask ourselves. Each night, I ask myself what went right today (my successes) and what did I learn from what went wrong (my failures). There’s always a lesson for us in the things that don’t quite work out. Success and failure are both temporary things and both are tied together. So when I’m asked what kind of day I had, I quickly think of all the good things that happened and all the things that I learned. It’s hard to have anything but  a perfect day that way!”

Zachary seemed to understand but for clarification he asked, “What’s there to learn when Josh got mad at me for not wanting to play chess today?”

I desperatly wanted to impart my version of wisdom, but resisted. “I’m not sure son, what did you learn?”


“Well, like most things, it takes some practice“, I said “Try to come up with something.”

Zach thought for a while and said, “I learned you can’t always please everyone, even your best friends.”

“Pretty good for a first try,” I thought but said “Anything else?”

He thought for a few more moments and said, “I don’t think so.”

“Well, that’s an outstanding lesson to learn, Zach, especially at your age. There are adults I know that still haven’t learned that one!”

With that he beamed the wonderful smile that is Zach’s alone and excitedly asked, “What’s there to learn when I miss a pop up?” I just smiled. “I know” he said, “that I have to practice a lot more!” We both chuckled at that and Zachary was on his way to recovery.

But I wanted to make sure, so I told him, “Now you know what’s going to happen to you?” “What?!” he asked.

I lowered my voice as if revealing the most sacred of secrets, “You’re not going to see it coming. It’ll sneak up on you like a ghost or something. No matter how hard you try to look for it, it’s still going to catch you by surprise!”

“C’mon Dad! You’re scaring me. What’s going to sneak up on me?!”

I continued playfully, “I’m not sure when it’ll happen, maybe in a week, maybe two or three, but it absolutely, positively is going to happen!”

“Daaaaad!”, he whined.

“You’re going to realize that you just had three weeks of perfect days in a row! Those perfect days are gonna sneak up on you, so watch out!”

“Right Dad.” he said sarcastically. With that, he kissed me and ran upstairs to get lost in Power Rangers or Sonic or something else in Kidville. But the trap was set. I knew he’d be looking over his shoulder for those dreaded perfect days.

The next day something interesting happened. When Zachary got home from school, he asked me what kind of day I had, but before I could answer he said, “Wait! Let me guess…great?”

“No, I was going to say perfect.” I replied.

“Oh darn!” and closing his eyes he asked, “Okay, what kind of day do you think I had?” “Perfect?”, I asked.

“Nah, just good.” he replied with a smile and then he bounded upstairs to do his homework.

Each day for the next couple of months, Zach and I played this ‘let me guess your day’  game. With each day came a different response, sometimes “Great!”, sometimes “Perfect!”, sometimes “Good.”, and sometimes “Just okay..” And I don’t really ever remember him saying he had a bad day, at least not while playing our game.

A year and a half has passed now, and we still occasionally have to have a heart to heart chat, but not very often. And occasionally Zach has a bad day or is in a foul mood, but not very often. And every once in a while, he’ll come up to me, with a wry grin and a playful demeanor and ask, “Okay Dad, what kind of day do you think I had?”

© Copyright 1997 by Michael D. Hargrove and Bottom Line Underwriters, Inc. All rights reserved. Michael D. Hargrove is the founder and president of Bottom Line Underwriters Inc.

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