Parenting is hard. There have been days in which I put my head on the pillow and hope that my children will remember more of the good than the bad. And believe me, many days it was a toss-up.
I recently watched my husband interact with an 8-year-old boy who has come into our lives this past year and a half. Our kids are grown and out of the house, so I filled my empty day planner by emailing the Duval County Superintendent of Schools, and asking where I could help. I was sent to one of the ”turnaround” schools on the Northside where I met this little boy and became friends with his mother. This sweet single mom of four’s life has become very stressful of late, so our family invites him, I’ll call him Johnny, into our home once a week to help her out. The only thing we offer him is stability and love, a home-cooked meal, a bedtime story in Batman pajamas, and a father figure to help with homework and toss a ball around.
The things that we take for granted as normal everyday events are so treasured by him that it stops me in my tracks. He marvels that I’ve bought him a few sets of clothes and his own toothbrush so that his mother doesn’t have to pack a bag for him to keep track of on the days I pick him up from school. He loves the repeated routine of homework, dinner, play, bath, then bed.
Although I’m the one who drives him around, buys him clothes, feeds him, and helps him become a stronger reader and swimmer, if you ask him who his favorite person is in our family, he says, without hesitation, “Dr. John,” his name for my husband.
As they play in the yard after dinner, I am reminded of the countless hours my husband spent with my sons doing one simple thing — tossing it back. Whether it’s a football, baseball, nerf ball, or wiffle ball, the easy peace that Johnny feels when he throws the ball to Dr. John is that it will get thrown back. There are no instructions on how to toss it better or critique of the catch. They don’t even talk a lot, but there are smiles and laughter as Johnny hits a “home run,” gets the football stripped as he tries to run by, kicks off from a tee made of sand at the beach, or stands in the pool and tosses a little water football to and fro, to and fro.
In those moments, all the burdens that a boy from a stressful fatherless home carries with him seem lifted.
When we gave him a nickname the other day it was as if we had given him the moon. He begs to help John with chores, so they cut the grass, take out the trash, and fix broken items around the house together, which requires an exciting trip to the hardware store.
If there is a father or stepfather out there who is struggling to connect with their little boys, I encourage you to buy a ball and toss it back when it’s thrown to you. This requires two crucial things: Eye contact and proximity, both of which they crave. Not some fancy tech game or toy that they play with alone. It’s often not as complicated as the millions of parenting books would have us think. Buy the ball, and toss it back. You won’t regret it, and you may get some help cutting the grass.
About the Author
Ann von Thron has been a mom, wife, and pediatrician in Jacksonville for more than two decades. Educated at the University of Georgia, and The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, she now lives with her husband John in Neptune Beach, where they raised their three children. She has written a family life column for The Beaches Leader for around 15 years, and is active in her church and community.