We were living in Germany when my oldest son was born. Somewhere around the time when he was a year old, maybe a year and a half, my wife and I were volunteering with the youth group and we took them all on a trip to a little village. We spent the first part of the day walking around the little town and getting a tour from a guy that was dressed in a period costume.
We stopped for lunch on the steps in front of a church in the town square which was maybe 50 square yards of cobblestone. Birds were pecking around trying to find a meal from the crumbs that fell from the student's sandwiches and my oldest son was enthralled by them. I had been carrying him in one of those saddle backpacks while we toured the town and he had done a good job not making a fuss about it, but he was ready to run and play.
I freed him from the backpack and told him that he needed to stay nearby where I could see him. He immediately started chasing the birds as they hunted for their meal amongst the cobblestones. He ran after them squealing with delight and I and about a dozen students and several other adults watched him enjoy his simple delight.
Then it happened. One particular cobblestone was set a bit higher than the rest and it caught his foot as he waddled after the birds. He landed on his face and the smack echoed around the square. Everyone there with me cringed and I jumped up to run over and tend my wounded son certain that I would have to deal with at least a bloody nose.
I was about halfway to him when he pushed himself up and looked over at me. In that moment, I could see that he wasn't sure what to do next. I felt like the look on his face was asking me, "What do I do now? Am I supposed to cry or what?"
Seizing the moment, I took a risk and said, "Oh yeah! Good job! That was awesome!" At the same time I flexed both arms and grunted, a sign that we had used before to show how strong he was. Seeing my response, my son stood himself up, brushed off his pants, flexed his muscles and grunted and carried on chasing the birds.
Everyone laughed and an turned to head back to the steps to finish my sandwich. Internally, I was distraught, but thankful that both my kid was unhurt and that my gamble had paid off.
That's a fun story and I remember those events very clearly, but so what.
I share it because it illustrates how we respond to the stuff that happens to our sons will greatly influence their reaction to it as well. If we choose to respond based on an assumption that our sons are weak, or incapable of dealing with the situation, then they'll meet our expectations.
Similarly, if we respond with an expectation that they're strong and capable, then they'll still meet our expectations or at least try to. Even if they miss the target, at least they'll be headed in the right direction.
Also, I got lucky when I saw that brief moment where I could see him looking to me for guidance on how to respond to getting a face full of cobblestone. One of the many lessons I learned that day was that I had to be on the lookout for more of those kind of moments. That one was pretty obvious, but how many more are there that I just miss? How many times has he looked to me to see what he should do and I was busy scratching my ass or picking my nose?
I can't always be on point at the top of my dad game, but I know that the stakes are high and I need step up.