Photo: Panama Jackson

Parenting, in practice, is a lot of work. Sure, it’s work that most of us who have the privilege of being parents love, but there are days when everybody can use a break. Especially when you have little ones, which I do. I have three children, aged 3, 4 and 10. As kids get older they get easier, physically, while the emotional toll grows. My 10-year-old—my daughter—doesn’t require as much supervision, obviously, but now the questions about everything else come into play: life, her body, her friends, navigating society and social mores. It’s work that I’m happy to do but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at times immensely stressful.

My 3- and 4-year-olds are different. They’re boys so at this stage our job is mostly keeping them alive and fed. Potty training is an animal unto itself but I know we’ll reach the other side just fine in due time. Mostly, we just have to monitor what they’re doing—becoming hypervigilant when they’re not in eyesight but have become super-quiet—and do our best to raise human beings who are compassionate, loving and good people. And this weekend, I got a pretty good indication that we’re doing a good job. It also reminded me why being a parent can be such a beautifully emotional thing.

My 4-year-old is one of the most wonderful little people on the planet. I’ve only known him for four years, but what a four years they’ve been. Of my three children, he’s the most introverted publicly, though at home he’s often the loudest, depending on what activity is happening. He wakes up smiling and loves his family dearly. If you sit next to him he will often snuggle right up to you. He looks for comfort everywhere. And he’s always hugging and kissing up on his mother and me. He’s the sweetest little kid.

For a while, he didn’t like being around new people at all, which was an issue for us when he started school. His mother and I were anxious about this new world while separated from him for so long during the day. But it brought him out of his shell. I mean, he is still going to wait until he’s comfortable opening up to new (and sometimes familiar) people, but now it can happen, whereas before it felt like he just didn’t want anything to do with people.

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He’s a creature of habit and pretty particular about things. Since he was little, he’s always fixated on various items for a time and then moved onto the next thing. For instance, for a few months, when he was 1 1/2, he always and only wanted to eat oatmeal. At another point, he wanted a Kinder Surprise Egg every day. Not even to open; he just wanted to hold onto it. If you saw him, you’d see this Surprise Egg. It got to the point where I’d buy, like, 20 at a time because his younger brother would at some point steal his little egg and open it to try to eat the chocolate. So I’d have to go to the stash to get him a new one and all would be well with the world. He went through an umbrella phase briefly, to the point where, in our wedding pictures, he’s holding an umbrella. He even did so when he walked down the aisle.

He’s fascinated by superheroes. Every day, until recently, he just HAD to have on a t-shirt with a superhero logo or picture. It genuinely bothered him when he didn’t. He didn’t feel cool. It didn’t matter who it was, just that he wanted to see a superhero on his shirt. It made him feel like one. On every trip to Target, I’d buy up one of every t-shirt I saw in his size (and I’d buy a companion one for his brother, of course) so that we didn’t run out of superhero shirts. My boy wants to be a superhero, well, then let’s make him a superhero. Again, he fixates; once he has decided that something, in particular, is special to him, he needs and wants that thing during all of his waking hours.

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Right now, it’s fidget spinners. On his person, at any given time, he may have up to three different fidget spinners. He loves them. We’ve purchased who knows how many. His sister has given him fidget spinners. He just loves them. And cars and car-like things. He’s especially orderly and has an uncanny ability to build things and create order out of mild chaos. So he’ll line up his cars and ask all of us which ones are our favorites so we can race each other as a family.

I went out of town last weekend. I tend to travel a lot for work-related things: events, speaking engagements, conferences, etc. Obviously, my kids don’t love their parent being gone but they do well with it. So on my way out of the door the other day, as I was preparing to walk to my Uber, my son runs up to me and says, “Here, Daddy!”

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I looked down and he handed me his favorite race car to take with me “so I could be safe.” It stopped me dead in my tracks. He hugged my leg and I hugged him and gave him a kiss and held the car in my hand and nearly caught all of the allergies available to me at the moment. This little perfect human knew I was leaving so he handed me one of his prized possessions so that I could be OK while gone.

I got in the Uber and stared at the car. I was so proud of him and felt so loved by this little fellow while at the same time feeling like, wow, he gets it. He is thinking about me and showing me how he loves me by giving me something that matters to him. It was one of the most touching things I’ve experienced in life. My wife has often told me that when I leave early for work or to take my daughter to school, often before he wakes up, he’ll wake up looking for me, temporarily breaking my heart but I know that I’ll see him soon, God willing. But holding that car in my hand made me not even want to leave home. True story, I literally had it on my person the entire time I was away. I didn’t tell anybody about that, but in my pocket I had this little Hot Wheels car because of everything I owned, for the weekend, that was the most important.

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And because I think he’s trying to make me cry, he did the same thing again when I left to go record a podcast recently. I was walking out the door and he ran up to me and handed me one of his prized fidget spinners to keep my backpack safe. Man, I love this kid.

Clearly, we’re doing something right. Now excuse me, my allergies are acting up.