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The Adventures of Being a Dad: Part 3
The Return to Childhood
Last weekend I raced down a water slide on a bougie board. I flew down the yellow tube, banking through the curves, cool water splashing at my face and streaming through my toes, until I burst into the light of the final drop, plunging into the deep water with arms raised. I won, naturally. My five-year-old son was talking trash at the top, but he never really stood a chance. He couldn’t even beat my wife or daughter. He didn’t care, though. He thought it was awesome.
We were at Carowinds, a big theme park not half an hour from our house. I grew up going there all the time in the summer, but I have to admit both the water park and the roller coasters have significantly improved in the last twenty years. I love going back to my old favorites and the new ones. It’s such a blast to relive some of the best memories or my childhood and see the same joy on my own kids’ faces.
When the coaster pulls into the station, my hair settles in the wind, and the thrill starts to fade, I always ask myself, why did I ever stop? Carowinds never went anywhere. Season passes are cheap. Kids only make it more expensive and complicated with their diminutive heights, irrational fears of going backwards, and incessant demands for dippin’ dots. It honestly sounds like a good date night. But we never did.
Roller coasters and water slides are the kind of fun you can easily have as an adult but rarely ever do. Your tastes and interests change, and you get busy with other things, and going to a water park begins to sound a bit childish, even though you secretly still want to. Being an adult is about “serious” things like going to work and paying bills and having sex and getting drunk. You just don’t have time for fun when you’re binge-watching shows about exiled princesses raising baby dragons. I’m convinced this is a big part of why so many young adults (myself included, in years past) seem to be stuck in a prolonged adolescence. They see adulthood as a type of drudgery, they feel the responsibility of freedom and the burden of maturity slowly tightening around them, and they are desperately hanging on to whatever small bits of joy they can still remember and retain. They’ve got it all wrong. You don’t get back to the simple joys of childhood by holding back the responsibility and maturity as long as possible. You get there by pushing through it. The quicker you can get past that rather awkward stage of life by learning to look for fulfillment and joy outside yourself, the happier and better off you will be.
The older you get, the more you realize that life is lived in cycles. The styles your parents wore eventually come back into fashion for you. The music you listened to as a teen becomes the classics your kids hear on the car radio. You cook the dishes your mom used to make for dinner. You teach your kids the sports you played. You leave for college on a grand adventure, but you somehow end up back in your hometown. The older you get, the more your time and attention strays from “adult” matters to focus on youthful passions and activities.
You can, in truth, become a kid again. It’s a simple fact of human biology. You must do so, in one sense, to have kids of your own. If it’s not inevitable, it’s at least probable, and it’s certainly optimal. You will absolutely find yourself talking like a baby, waking up in the middle of the night, playing dress up and dolls, jumping on a trampoline, building sandcastles at the beach, watching Saturday morning cartoons, playing video games on the TV, throwing the football or shooting hoops in the street, and doing cannonballs into the pool. You might be on the other side from the person in your memories, but you’ll quickly realize it’s all basically the same.
The texture of it changes, though, leavened by perspective and maturity. Winning a soccer match is a tasty batter. Watching your kid win a soccer match is a fully baked cake. Beating your kid in soccer (while you still can) is the icing on top. You get to have all the fun, aware of what it takes, knowing how memorable and meaningful it is, and share with someone you love, taking genuine pride in the accomplishment. It’s the best parts of being a kid layered atop the best parts of being an adult.
I admit it’s not always easy. You may not want to act out the same scene with the same dolls for the hundredth time. Your stomach may not tolerate riding the roller coaster a dozen times in a row anymore. You might be tempted to think there are more important things you should be doing than wrestling on the floor with a little boy. It takes a hard-won maturity not to pressure your kids into achieving for your own sake or to find the right balance between helping them up and letting them fail. But the reward is all the more precious for it.
You get to grow up again, too. Your kids don’t stay babies forever. Their statures and interests change, and you have to change along with them. Sadly, I don’t get to play with my son’s hot wheels much anymore, but I’m excited that he’s getting more into video games. We catch pokemon together or build houses in Minecraft. Won’t be long before he’s helping me raid in Destiny. And while I can’t do all of my daughter’s gymnastics skills, she’s just about ready to give tennis a real shot. I love how she’s sporty and strong. But when did she get so old? I can only imagine the teen drama headed my way in a few years. That will be an experience I never quite had myself. I’m sure it will be hard at times, for both me and the kids, but I will benefit from going through it a second time, as they will benefit from my wife and I having gone through it before. Eventually, they will become adults of their own, and hopefully have the maturity and opportunity to repeat this process from themselves. Which means so too will I, a third time around, reliving two full lives at once, a whole new layer of joy.
This cycle gives life dynamism and meaning, turning it from an endless, formless pursuit of self into an adventure that begins before you were born and carries you onward long after you have passed. It gives life shape, distinct stages you can look forward to beyond the next promotion or the next paycheck or the next purchase. It gives you something permanent to invest in, a future that matters and will remember you, a chance to return to the simple fun of your youth or to correct the mistakes you made or the harm done to you as a better man.
It’s not the only way to live a meaningful life. If your career or your hobbies or your friends give you deep fulfillment and purpose, good for you. You are in a small minority, historically speaking. Not many guys can achieve that level of success and influence. Be careful not to get caught up in a youthful passion, only to reach the end of that line too soon to carry you through life but too late to change direction.
A family is something almost anyone can have, even alongside all those other things. And being a dad is something it’s safe to sink your whole life into. No one ever regrets spending too much time trying to be a better dad (or a better husband or a better person). Plus, it’s a lot more fun and satisfying than throwing yourself into work. You create something special. You watch it grow. You learn patience. You practice love. You shape the future. You play games. You ride roller coasters. You wrestle and dance and laugh. You remember the joy of being a kid again, only you can appreciate it so much more this time.