Building better dads

Watching, waiting and learning

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Guest post by Stephen Holden

Zachary was so excited, he was nearly beside himself with excitement. This was to be his big day out in Melbourne. He had graciously accepted my offer to go and catch a tram – nay, he had grabbed the opportunity with alacrity. And off we went, he and I, hand in hand, to await the arrival of a tram down at the stop.

This was to be Zac’s day, this was entirely about Zac’s pleasure. I was just delighted to be able to entertain him so easily – a couple of dollars to buy tram tickets, no destination, and voila, some simple entertainment for Zac for a couple of hours.

We were a fair way out of town, a quietish part of the track, but trams could be expected to come along about once every 15 minutes or so. As we stood waiting beside the road, Zachary was tense with excitement. His eyes surveyed the ‘train tracks’ awaiting impatiently the arrival of the tram.

He began to speak to me in partial sentences. ‘Going on green tram? Go on green tram?’ He was making it clear to me that he was excited about this possibility of travelling on a tram.

A tram lumbers into view away down the street – and I ask Zac what it is. ‘Is it a tram?’ Yes, most definitely it is a tram. As it gets closer to us, we are both awaiting its arrival with anticipation. Unfortunately it is a grey tram, but as it rumbles to a stop in the middle of the road, I automatically grab Zac and we walk onto the tram.

We check for traffic which has of course stopped, but the practice is good for him, and we walk out to the tram and climb aboard. The doors gently hiss to a close. As the tram begins to move off and I walk him toward the ticket machine, Zac begins to gently remonstrate. He bellows ‘Want green tram’.

“Zac, sure, it’s a grey tram, but hey, what’s the difference from inside.”

Through tears, sniffles and blubbers “Want green tram.”

Endeavouring to envelope him in my arms, I try to placate him, “We’ll find a green tram, we’ll take this one for a little bit and change to a green tram.”

“Want green tram. Waaaaaahhh.” A long continuous moaning wail ensues.

Everyone looks at me and the child who is wriggling so violently that he is likely to slip out of my arms any second, and in falling to the floor, add physical abuse to my list of child-related felonies.

Zac has declared what he wants quite clearly. Everyone from the driver through to the deaf old bugger at the far end of the tram understands exactly what he wants. The combined public sentiment aboard this tram at this moment is “What are you, some kind of moron – or worse, an asshole?”

As the tram trundles along the track toward the next stop – never did two tram stops seem so far apart – I reflect on the lessons of this little episode.

Zac had made it clear from the outset that he wanted a green tram. So the teacher and learner inside my head have the following discussion:

“Why did you board a grey one? Did you miss the fact that from the moment that you had suggested trams to Zac to the moment you boarded the tram, Zac had been excitedly talking about a green tram?”
Defensively, I argued “We might have had to wait a long time until the next tram came along. And who knows when a green tram might come along?”

“Uh-huh. So, who was the intended beneficiary of this whole excursion?”

“Zac.”

“Right, and so you put him on a tram even though it was not the one he wanted because of the potential wait. Did Zac say he could not, would not wait?”

“No, I guess I assumed that waiting would be onerous on him. That after the grey tram had passed, he would regret his decision and wish that he’d taken the green tram.”

“Right, but you didn’t test this out, you didn’t let him discover the consequences of his decisions, you simply decided to implement a decision based on an untested assumption.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“And what else was there that led you to take the tram. There’s always multiple reasons for why we behave in certain ways.”

“Well, I guess it was kinda conditioning. Even though this entire trip was for his benefit, all sorts of conditioning popped into place with the arrival of the tram. If there’s a tram shown up, and we’re waiting at a tram stop, then I guess we should board the tram – isn’t that why we’re there?”

“Right, and perhaps some social desirability. I might look like an idiot standing at a tram stop, tram rolls up, and I don’t board, and as it rolls away, I will look up along the trams to see if one green in hue is on its way. Yeah, and people will bother themselves to remark on what an idiot I am, right.”

“Yeah, I guess there was that. Being in a city, waiting for transport, feeling rushed and conditioned to board public transport given that I’m waiting for it – even though I am not waiting for public transport, I was really waiting for a green tram to give my son a fun experience.”

“Good, and anything else that we learned?”

“Hmm. I guess I’m intrigued that expectations play such an enormous role in our lives. My son, at 2 & ½, is hung up about clambering aboard a green, not grey, not red, not purple, not blue, but a green tram.

“In addition, I learnt that what I said to him about us not being able to see the colour from the outside is not really relevant. That is, my argument wasn’t relevant to Zachary. It didn’t matter that the colour could not be seen from the inside, it could be seen as he boarded, and I made him board a tram of a less than ideally coloured tram. I guess in terms of his desires, he doesn’t have to be reasonable – any more than I am reasonable in my desires. For instance, I want others to treat me with respect, but that’s just the colour on the outside. How they treat me should remain irrelevant, those are their decisions to make, and I would be foolish to be so influenced by those things. But foolish or not, I am influenced by them."

“Excellent, and anything else that we have learned, how about the value of biding your time?”

“Yeah, I think I see that one. I tried to offer the argument to Zac that if he could just be calm for a couple of hundred metres, we could get off the tram and go back to waiting for a green tram as we should have been doing in the first place. He was clearly not placated by that.”

“Right, but what did we learn from this, how does this apply to us?”

“Well, I guess that when I reject people saying to me ‘Give it time, time heals all, it will all turn out,’ I need to remember this experience here. Sometimes those removed from the very personal, very human situation in which I am immersed can be offering useful insights even though I dismiss them.”

The next stop arrived, we descended and awaited a green tram. One arrived within minutes. We ascended, Zac was delighted, and so we continued for a few, happy hours getting on and off trams. He became so engaged in the whole process that the the need for the tram to be green became irrelevant. Now it became important that he be allowed to clamber on and off by himself – even if it meant that others might be delayed a second or two. Same lessons, different context.

Guest post by Stephen Holden

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