I had a delightful little surprise the other day.
My youngest son Eli grabbed my hand as we were walking through a busy parking lot.
It caught me off guard because it had been a while since the last time he held my hand, and I suddenly realized how much I missed that -- and treasured it.
He used to do it all the time when he was a preschooler, reaching up to wrap his pudgy little fingers around my pinky as we'd walk up some steps to his preschool or venture across a street.
But now he's a big boy. He's 7 and just finished first grade. Sesame Street has given way to Scooby-Doo. He plays soccer and baseball instead of hide-and-seek. His favorite bedtime stories are "The Misadventures of Junie B. Jones" instead of "Goodnight Moon" or "The Cat in the Hat."
He even has homework most nights. Thankfully, the math isn't too complicated yet.
But I find that I treasure seemingly mundane moments, such as homework or reading bedtime stories, or him impulsively grabbing my hand, because Eli is giving my wife and me another lap around the parenting track.
We have two other children, but they're older. Quite a bit older.
One is 23 and now lives on her own and is carving out a career in the world of retail fashion. The other is very literally his big brother. He just finished his freshman year in college and could bench press Eli rather easily. In fact, sometimes he does exactly that.
So here I am, a good bit north of 50, helping my first-grader with his math and reading homework, and going to soccer and little league games. Again.
And you know what? It's more fun than you can imagine.
Oh sure, I get the occasional well-meaning person who invariably offers a compliment about my grandson. I usually just smile, explain that he's my little blessing. And then I smack them with my cane.
(Just kidding. I don't use a cane. Yet.)
Others will say, Oh, he'll keep you young.
Let's hope so. What he does is he keeps you running. Eli, like many people in his age group, is remarkably athletic and energetic. When he gets home from school, he's ready to run. When my wife gets home from work, he's ready to run. When I get home from work, a few hours after that, he's ready to run.
But I'm not complaining. He truly is a blessing, even at the end of the day when he's frustrated and overly tired, and I'm sure all you parents with 7-year-olds know exactly what I'm talking about.
He has a curious mind and a wonderful imagination. I love to watch him play make-believe games and marvel at how his little mind works. He is sensitive and smart and although he hasn't mastered the art of tying his shoe, he has a zany sense of humor and a quick wit.
And I've got a front row seat for all of it.
If there's a difference between Dad 1.0 and Dad 2.0, I'm probably a bit more lenient than I was the first time around; more wag and less bark. Maybe it's because I'm older. Or maybe the older ones wore me out a bit. But there's no question that I take the time to savor each little step along the way, because I know each new milestone is the last one I'll mark as a father.
As most parents know, there's something magical about a young child. It's fascinating to see the look in their eyes as they discover the world, and you often rediscover things as you see them though your child's eyes.
When Eli was a baby and growing into a toddler, I often took him with me to visit my father, who used to live at an assisted living complex in South Fayette. Eli was like a celebrity there, always being offered candy and treats by the residents and staff. But the sweetest thing was how the mere sight of him brought smiles to the faces of the mostly octogenerian residents.
As we would walk through the dining room, some would reach out to pat his head or his hand, as if it would give them a fleeting taste of his youth. He was oblivious to most of the adoring attention, but the obvious joy that he brought to those faces was remarkable.
Your children are your children forever. But they are only kids once. Love them. Hug them. But don't coddle them. Keep a loose hand on the tiller and let them make mistakes. But also make sure you help them learn from their mistakes. When they misbehave, hug them more. When they fall down, pick them up, brush them off and send them back out. And celebrate each little accomplishment.
And some day, when you least expect it, they'll do something amazing. Like grab your hand.
Matthew Smith is the deputy local news editor at the Post-Gazette (email@example.com or 412-263-1738).