“Daddy, will you dance with me?”
The answer is, “Yes, Ellis.” Usually she’s wearing a princess dress in some pastel hue. Then she takes my hands and insists that she be allowed to lead.
On the way home from work last week I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour that told the story of a little girl who could not sit still. She was constantly fidgeting, wiggling her way through classes at school, and unable to focus. The girl’s teachers suggested her mother take her to see someone, a professional who could help diagnose what was wrong with her. When the little girl visited the doctor, instead of diagnosing her, he noticed her. He explained to her that he needed to have a private talk with her mother; then he left the room, flipping on the radio as he went. He and the little girl’s mother stood where she could not see them, and they watched while the girl leaped and whirled around the room. The doctor turned to look at the girl’s mother and told her there was absolutely nothing wrong; she was simply born to dance. That little girl grew to be Dame Gillian Lynne, one of the most prolific and acclaimed dancers and choreographers in the world.
When they interviewed her, Gillian said, “I really owe my whole career … and, I suppose, my life to this man.”
What if he hadn’t taken notice? What if he hadn’t really seen her? What if no one ever had?
I was suddenly struck by the parental responsibility of noticing, of perceiving the potential of large lives packed into these tiny bodies. I’m not talking about success, or education, or performance, or anything else by which these kids will undoubtedly be measured, compared, and arranged. No, I’m talking about the innate properties that need only the twin opportunities of acknowledgment and encouragement to thrive.
I was also convicted by how infrequently I really notice, how poorly I sometimes see. I’m often rushing and hurrying, coaxing and cajoling, prodding and pandering to bring about this outcome or another, trying to get where I need to go, hoping to make it through the grocery without little hands pulling down every single can of diced tomatoes.
Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to keep the wheels of my kids’ lives from drifting over the edge of a cliff. But the calling that’s on me as a parent is so much more beautiful than being a guardrail. My calling is to see who they are as deeply as I can and to ask for the help of the Spirit to see even deeper than that. My privilege is to notice the potential for which they were made and to draw that out as best I can.
Because that’s the way I’m seen. Even in my worst moments, I’m seen as full of promise and potential. My heavenly Father isn’t interested in being my guardrail, in keeping me in line, or helping me mind my manners. He’s noticing me, looking into the deepest parts of me, and seeing all the simmering potential He’d like to see boil over.
I want to be a dad like that, one who notices, who sees promise wrapped in possibility.
So we dance. Ellis holds onto my finger, and she twirls around in haphazard circles. Suddenly she’ll stop, lean her head back, and raise one leg behind her as far as she can, all awkward angles and imbalance. But behind her closed eyes there is a ballroom brilliant with candlelight, its flicker falling upon throngs of men and women in their finery whose eyes have all turned toward her. In her dream she is gracefully posed, paused, holding their gaze before whirling away again.
And at night, when Karen and I sit in the family room after we’ve put the kids to bed and the melody of some made-up song floats down the hall in her little voice, carrying the words that hold what she cares about most, sometimes we just listen.
These are the moments when I feel I’m getting a glimpse of something she is at her very core—strong, imaginative, bold, and disarmingly funny. More than in the everyday errands, car rides, bedtime rituals, breakdowns, time-outs, and all the rest—in these moments I am able to snatch at some epiphany, like fireflies floating on a summer night. So I’m collecting them, putting them in a jar, and pressing my nose up to the glass, wondering what all these little glimmers might become.
As parents, one of our greatest responsibilities (and privileges) is to recognize the gifts God has given our children and to do all we can to help those gifts grow and develop. I’ve realized that my first step is to take good long looks at my daughter. Because how can I hope to help her become who she’s meant to be if I don’t notice who she is?