If there's one thing I've learned as a father of two kids, it's that valuable parenting lessons are often hiding in plain sight. When my 17-year-old daughter, Grace, was little, we found out that she had a shrunken optic nerve, a birth defect that made her legally blind in one eye. This meant that she would have to wear a patch for several hours a day over the stronger eye so the weaker one wouldn't atrophy. A rebel even then, Grace quickly figured out that all she had to do was reach up and take it off when we weren't looking. Our wonderful doctor said a common solution was to have her wear splints made out of rolled-up magazines and masking tape so she couldn't bend her arms. Marching around the house, she looked like a cute—though cranky—little robot. But it made me sad, and I felt like a cruel father. In the end, though, those thousands of hours paid off, because today she's regained some of the sight in that eye.
I tell this tale to illustrate the kinds of painful choices her mom and I made through the years with Grace and her kid brother, Joseph, that might have seemed draconian when taken out of context. But our hearts were in the right place. When it comes to parenting, my template is this: Restrict when it matters, give breathing room when it doesn't. The catch is in knowing the difference.
There have been plenty of opportunities for me to learn, like the time when 5-year-old Grace said I was stupid and I forced her to apologize. She did, her way: "I'm sorry you're stupid." I laughed, which some might say is wrong. I say it's picking your battles. Also, it was funny. Then there was the time she rode her tricycle through the back door of our screened-in porch and down the stairs, only minutes after I told her to slow down. I heard the commotion and found her in a tangled heap at the bottom of the steps, whimpering, her arms and legs flailing. I was sure she was grievously injured, but she didn't have a scratch on her. I hugged her close, then punished her by letting her watch her Madeline video only five times that day instead of 12. So as you can clearly see, though I also think consistency is a good rule, it's easier said than done.
But past is prelude, and all of those childhood challenges pale in comparison to that ominous storm cloud sitting out on the horizon now, the one that starts with "b," ends in "s," and has "oy!" in the middle. I started noticing not too long ago that guys seemed to be staring at the space next to me when I was out walking with my kids. Then one day it finally penetrated my dumb dad brain: "OMG! They're looking at Grace!"