At the playgroundI play a certain game when I push my toddler on the swing.  I played it with my other two children when they were at that age as well. After giving the swing a good shove, I’ll pretend to bend over and tie my shoe. As I’m bending over, the swing comes back and nails me in the back, much to the laughter of the kid in the swing.

One day while playing this game, another father placed his son in the swing next to mine. I greeted him with a hello and mentioned the weather, but he contemptuously shook off my comment. I could see by the looks he was giving me that he did not approve of the game that I was playing with my toddler. As I continued to interact with my son, I increasingly became aware that the guy next to me was not someone that I would want a future “playdate” with. I was disgusted by him referring to his son as “the little shit” in our small chat, and when the kid acted silly in the swing, the dad said, “Quit acting like a tard.” Every time this guy spoke to his son, an angry shiver shot up my back.

I realize word choice can be a cultural thing and not everyone views certain words the way that I do, so I tried to shrug off his rhetoric as not that big of a deal.  I just assumed that the guy was an angry, homophobic, racist bigot, who was socially inept. And since the park is a place where people usually go to have fun, I tried to make the most of our unfortunate proximity to each other.

Then, things got worse.

After my son had enough of the swing, we walked over to the slides where I chased him around and hoisted him into the air. After a few minutes of this, my son’s old swing neighbor waddled up to me and grabbed my leg. He obviously wanted me to toss him in the air as I was doing with my son. I smiled at him and patted him on the head and then tried to get the two boys to play with each other.

The dad, who had no choice but to stand next to me, occasionally checked his phone as we watched our boys poking each other’s jackets and grabbing one another. This interaction went on for a few minutes until my son reached up for another round of tossing. The other boy reached his arms up as well. I would have obliged, but you never know how a parent is going to react, so I brushed off his attempt.

The father, finally noticing what his son wanted, reached over to toss him in the air. Unfortunately, as the boy was descending, he gave his dad’s mouth a good kick. Barely catching the kid before he crashed into the pavement, the dad quickly raised his hand in a backhanded slap position as he yelled out curses. I tried to make light of the tense situation and jokingly said, “Yeah, that happens sometimes. I’ve often thought about packing a mouth guard to bring to the park.” The dad didn’t laugh and soon the dad and the boy were gone.

I haven’t seen either one at the park since.

It’s always uncomfortable when parents exhibit anger and resentment (or just plain indifference) to their kids at the playground. I get especially frustrated when I see a dad behaving that way. I’ve been a part of a Dads Group and a member of a dad blogging community that seeks to show the world that men can parent just as well as women. That we are equally loving and kind to our children.

Then, Neanderthals like the guy at the park show up and makes us all look bad.

I wish I could have gotten to know this guy a little better. He didn’t have to bring his child to the park on a cool morning; he could just as easily have spent the morning indoors watching TV. He was well intentioned, but he didn’t quite know how to go about interacting with his child and he hadn’t learned how to enjoy and cherish those moments with his son.

That seems to be the case with a lot of dads. They want to be a good dad, but the execution is harder than they thought and they fall back on an old school mentality. Men of my generation often didn’t have fathers who were actively and lovingly involved in their lives and society still doesn’t position men to be equal parenting partners (though society is getting better).

Thankfully, there are Dad Groups, conferences, and Dad blogs that are seeking to fill the void. Together, we can transform the Neanderthals into 21st Century dads.

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