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What can we learn from children that we don’t already know? As parents, we are supposed to be the leaders, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Is there something we’ve lost amongst the interest rates and grocery bills that we used to understand but then started to forget? For all of our children’s idiosyncrasies and emotions, tantrums and fits, perhaps they have more to teach us than we can ever really model for them.

A case in point could be my three-year-old son’s concert a few months ago. His class spent weeks learning and practising three Christmas carols. Leading up to the big day, he often serenaded us at the kitchen table, eyes shining and happy and waving his fork to-and-fro to accentuate the song. Over reheated macaroni and optimistic sides of grapes and carrots, it gradually came to light that there would be two different songs about building snowmen – the instantly recognizable Frosty the Snowman and another that, as far as I can tell, was a reinterpretation of Five Little Ducklings. The real star of the show, however, would be the perennial classic Jingle Bells.

Like many children that age, he was never nervous about performing. After arriving at the school and exchanging seasonal pleasantries with the other parents, we watched him and his classmates come out for the first and only act. He was wearing a Santa hat and smiling in the front row, positioned beside one of the friends that we also often heard about over dinner.

From his expression, it was clear that there was never any thought given about whether or not he would sing well enough or if the audience would care. That kind of consciousness had not yet set in. All he cared about was that his mommy and daddy would be there to watch and that he would get to sing his songs. Wearing an expression I can only describe as joy, my son launched into the opening lines with a gusto and a happiness that I haven’t experienced since I too was up on stage, singing along as a child. Before I grew up and took my place as part of the audience.

He had been given bells. Later, I realized with a warm inner pride that he kept time perfectly, joyfully belting out the lyrics out while swinging his tiny arm up and down to a beat that he felt more than learned. The reason I was able to note this detail is because the first time I watched him perform was, actually, the day after we got home.

I was alone in our living room and trying to figure out what he had meant when he told me during the car ride home that I was not clapping hard enough. On the screen, I saw him see me on the same laptop I was using now. Watching the roughly 20-second video, I saw him scan the room for his mommy and daddy.

We had been talking about this performance for the better part of a month, and he trusted us when we told him how excited we were to watch him sing the songs he had been taught by his teachers and learned with his first set of friends.

But instead of seeing me smiling back at him, he saw the lens of my camera, obscuring my face and occupying my hands so that I could hold it steady and ensure that the video I would be e-mailing to his grandparents was clear and well-composed.

“Daddy, next time you need to clap louder. Don’t hold your camera,” he admonished me later.

In the recording, it was sad to watch him move from happiness to confusion and then back to a slightly lesser happiness. I didn’t feel any sense of dad guilt; after all, I had had only good intentions. But I did feel that sadness. Even if the distraction was only momentary, and, like kids do, he soon regained his form, I can’t help but wonder if a more conscious layer of consciousness had set in? All because he just wanted me to be as fully happy and in-the-moment as he was instead of busily preserving his performance in digital form so that we could watch it after it had ended.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not that sad of a story: My son still had fun singing his song and we stopped for a rare dinner out on the way home, intermittently coming to terms with what had happened over fish, chips and some fried pickles that he was trying for the first time.

We did, however, broker a deal: I am to leave my camera at home next year, and we will focus on the moments instead.

John Barnes lives in Acton, Ont.

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