by Mike Todd

“Can we go outside and dig for dinosaur bones?” my son Evan asked last weekend.

He was really asking if we could go out to the woods in the backyard with one real shovel and one little plastic beach shovel, chipping away at the mixture of roots and rocks that passes for soil back there, which is only slightly tougher to penetrate than your average sidewalk. Depending on your demographic, this activity is either viewed as paleontological adventure or backbreaking manual labor.

“Sorry, buddy, but I have to go blow leaves right now,” I said, giving a typical blow-off-your-adorable-kid-because-you-have-stuff-to-do-but-someday-you’ll-look-back-on-this-moment-and-cry-while-listening-to-Cat’s-in-the-Cradle response.

Evan looked hurt. Five-year-olds feel emotions harder than normal people. You can tell this because an adult will rarely scream when told that he will have to wait until after lunch to open his Happy Meal toy.

“But I really want to dig for dinosaur bones!” he said, as if the only thing keeping us from unearthing a T. rex in the backyard was that he hadn’t expressed his desire clearly enough.

Until that moment, I hadn’t put my finger on the disconnect between his enthusiasm for this activity and my complete lack of it. The major difference was that, in my mind, when digging up our yard in search of bones from the Cretaceous Period, there’s a zero-percent chance of success. In Evan’s mind, it’s more like 50-50.

He’s come to this conclusion honestly. Last year, we made a big mistake when we took our kids to the local children’s museum. At one of the exhibits, we saw a full mastodon skeleton that had been found in a suburban backyard, discovered quite by accident when they started digging to put in a swimming pool. We made of big deal of it at the time, trying to impress our kids with the wonders of the natural world, but now Evan is pretty convinced that if you don’t find a mastodon in your backyard, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

Instead of trying to tear up our yard that day, Evan really should have been trying to tear it up on the soccer field. We’d skipped his game because, well, he didn’t want to go.

“Do I have to go? I’d rather stay here,” he said.

“Well, I guess you don’t have to,” my wife Kara replied.

At his age, they don’t even bother with proper teams; they just divide the big clump of kids into smaller clumps of kids and let them scrimmage, so nobody missed us.

We do feel a little guilty that we’re not doing a better job of pushing Evan to sporting greatness. Sure, we’d love for him to be so good at sports that he crushes the spirit of other small children each week, but for now, he’s content being curious, adventurous and creative on his own. These skills may serve him well for the rest of his life, but who’s going to force him to enjoy kicking a ball within the confines of a strict set of rules if we don’t do it?

“Pleeeeeeease! I wanna dig for dinosaur bones!” he pleaded.

Fortunately, my parents were visiting for the weekend, and they had a free afternoon since their services as soccer hooligans were no longer needed. “You go blow leaves,” my dad said. “I’ll take Evan outside and watch him dig for bones. I’m not going to dig, but I’ll hang out with him while he does.”

Shortly thereafter, as I came around the corner with the leaf blower, I saw my dad, shovel in hand, standing knee-deep in a freshly dug trench. Evan crouched beside him, peering into the hole. With a wide smile, he pulled something out of the hole. From where I stood, it looked like a rock, but maybe it was a T. rex tooth.