"Daddy, Play With Me!"

By An excerpt from: Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children

The clock in Jeff’s car glows 6:40 P.M. as he rolls into the driveway after another long and tiring day at work. He opens the door to his home with a weary sigh and drops the mail next to the answering machine, which is blinking in that incessant, anxious way that demands listening. All he wants is a relaxing evening with no bosses, clients, or coworkers to please.

He peeks into his wife’s home office and greets her warmly. As they chat about their day, she asks if he’d mind fixing dinner so she can finish up a few things. “No problem,” he assures her. Before heading to the kitchen, he pauses to savor a moment’s peace, silently planning out the next few hours: check the mail, listen to messages, take a nice hot shower, change into sweats, fix a quick dinner . . .

“Hi, Daddy! Play with me?” Snapped out of his reverie, Jeff puts on a smile and bends to wrap a hug around the giggling little angel with the hopeful eyes. He twirls her around in big circles and plants kisses on her nose. “Hey, my little Lily-flower!” he croons. He buries his nose in her soft hair, loving the little-child feel and scent of her. Laughing with glee, Lily cherishes these sparkling moments in her daddy’s arms; craving more, she implores, “Play with me?”

“Hey, punkin’, I have some things to do; then we’ll play later.”

“Just a little while, Daddy?” she pleads with a smile. But looking at his face, she suddenly knows he’d never drop everything just for some silly play, but she can’t help asking one last time. When the expected answer comes, she wanders off resignedly to watch the TV show that’s always on at this time, always on for her when Daddy’s not.

Lily watches her program, all the while counting the minutes on the clock. Jeff loses himself in the mail, the newspaper, and the answering machine, looking forward to the completion of all his daily responsibilities so that he can play with his daughter. After some time on the computer reading E-mail, he trudges upstairs, loosening his tie. He can almost feel the steamy warmth of the shower, the comfort of those old sweats, the . . . wait, what is this?

He turns to find a beaming little girl, who’d sneaked up the stairs behind him, given away by the soft thumping of her tiny feet. She musters all the vocal sweetness that she imagines a good girl to have and asks, “Can we play now, Daddy?” She doesn’t want to bother him, doesn’t want to pester. She just wants him close to her, laughing his silly laugh just for her.

What Jeff hears is persistence—a trait he will someday appreciate in her as an adult, but one that annoys him today. So, with a ruffle of her hair, he dismisses her with strained patience. “In a little bit, Lily. Why don’t you go ask Mommy if she can play with you now?”

Not so easily put off, she is in position at the bottom of the stairs when he descends some time later. Her little face is fairly bursting with the effort of holding back her request. She doesn’t want to annoy him, doesn’t want to be inconvenient, doesn’t want to be bad—and so, says nothing, hoping he’ll remember his promise to play “later.”

But he doesn’t.

“Ready for some dinner?” he asks, walking quickly past her in an effort to stave off a few repeats of her “Want to play?” chorus. He enters the kitchen and begins pulling items from the refrigerator. Just then, the telephone rings, and little ears listen—as they always do—as Jeff answers. “Hello? Hey, Steven. How are ya? Great. Did you catch the game Sunday? I can’t believe he missed that play . . . ” And so he is lost to her again, this time to adult conversation, phone tucked between ear and shoulder.

Maybe if I’m just quiet and smile real big, Lily thinks. So she looks up at him with every fiber of her being poured into her smile, every good thing in her soul spilling from her eyes. Still on the phone, her daddy smiles back vacantly and plops a plate of dinner down for his daughter, then disappears into his wife’s office with a plate for her, too. Lily’s best smile fades as she quietly eats her dinner to the hum of Daddy’s voice on the phone.

Afterward, of course, the parents are busy. There’s dinner to be cleaned up, garbage to be taken out, bills to pay . . . And all the while, Jeff’s little one—who naturally will not be little forever—patiently and proudly waits beside her latest Lego masterpiece. She just knows he’ll notice it soon. She knows it’s the marvel of engineering brilliance sure to draw him into her world. But the doorbell rings, and Jeff strides right past her to answer. Perhaps after the visitor leaves, she wonders . . .

It’s Rahul, their neighbor. He needs help getting his lawn tractor started. “Hate to bother you, Jeff, but you think you might have a second to look at it?”

“Of course,” Jeff replies, his thoughts registering the day last week when Rahul was there at 6:00 A.M. to jump-start Jeff’s car. “That’s what good neighbors are for.”

After letting his wife know where he’s bound, he reaches down to plant kisses on his daughter’s soft cheeks. “Be right back, punkin’,” he says. And he leaves too quickly to notice the silent tears that have begun to run down those same cheeks so hastily kissed, soft cheeks that are soon buried in pillows. When Jeff returns, she is asleep, dreaming of moving out and becoming a neighbor who could ring the doorbell, call Daddy on the phone, and send E-mails to him.

The Hidden Message

“You are not as important to me as the mail, the messages, the dinner, the phone call or the neighbor. I love you, but I’m too busy for you—and there’s always later, there’s always tomorrow.”

Think About It

Children perceive time, and what we do with it, differently from the way adults do. By about age thirty, we adults barely notice the precious seconds. In the currency of time, they’re merely pennies, hardly able to buy anything of value. For little ones, however, every moment is weighty with possibility and so passes heavily and slowly. Consider, for instance, the evening that we just witnessed—it passed particularly slowly for the little girl but it blew past the man who is her father.

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