On r/DadReflexes, Being a Father Is a Superpower

A heartwarming subreddit where dads save the day, again and again.

A man pulls a child by the arms away from a tiger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ChristinLola/iStock and mari_art/iStock.

This post is part of Reading Reddit, a Slate pop-up blog about Reddit.

Ah, small children. How do they even stay alive? They have no peripheral awareness. Their sense of balance is for shit. They are magnetized to slippery things, sharp things, unstable things, and things on which they might bang their heads. I honestly don’t know why parents don’t completely wrap their children in bubble wrap.

The answer, according to Reddit, is the Dad Reflex. The Dad Reflex is the animal instinct that allows parents to muster extrasensory powers to protect their brood from mishaps and accidents—the preternatural paternal ability to swoop in at exactly the right moment and whisk a child away from self-inflicted disaster. A child, a stairway, a slip, a fall, a practiced arm reaching down to grab the tumbling infant before he hits the ground: the Dad Reflex in action. We’ve all seen this sort of thing happen; most of us probably benefitted from a Dad Reflex or two when we were younger. According to Reddit, this reflex is a superpower that deserves to be celebrated.

And so we have r/DadReflexes, an ongoing audiovisual compendium of fathers exhibiting uncanny instincts for saving their progeny from disaster in the nick of time. (For clips of mothers saving the day, head on over to the r/MomInstincts subreddit.) DadReflexes is sort of like America’s Funniest Home Videos as curated by Ward Cleaver. There are dads saving kids from riding their bikes into trees; dads catching kids as they fall off of slides; dads shielding their family from flying bats and balls at baseball games. Taken together, the videos on DadReflexes constitute an endless idealization of heteronormative parenting—a visual Father’s Day card celebrating those dads who are always, always there, and an exercise in wish fulfillment for those people whose fathers were not.

This GIF is the platonic ideal of the Dad Reflex. It features a dad and a kid posing for a picture on a wooden bridge. On r/DadReflexes, you just know the kid will inevitably stumble backward off the bridge. When it happens, the dad sticks his arm out and saves the kid from falling without even turning to look. I could watch this clip all day.

A dad catching his child at the edge of a footbridge.

Each video merits a rating of between zero to five stars. The zero- and one-star videos are inevitably clips of fathers who didn’t act quickly enough, whose Dad Reflexes have been slowed by lethargy or beer. In this clip, titled “Dad lends a single hand,” the father lamely extends his hand as his kid, three feet away, falls backward off of his big wheel. Note what appears to be a caffeine-free Pepsi can, just visible at the corner of the frame. Should have gone for the diesel, Dad!

A child falling backwards off of a Big Wheel.

If you bust out laughing when babies fall down, then you will like the lower-rated videos. I am that sort of person, and yet I tend to agree with the commenters who argue that these DadFail videos do not belong in DadReflexes. (Or, as one user put it, “those kind of posts belong in r/stepdadreflexes,” which is a real—and very funny—subreddit.)

I am similarly conflicted about many of the five-star videos. These videos are often harrowing, and they tend to feature children in actual danger. Take, for example, this terrifying video of a man jumping into a harbor to rescue a small girl who had just been pulled into the water by an aggressive sea lion.

I will probably have nightmares about that video, and DadReflexes is not supposed to induce nightmares. Or this five-star video, featuring a father exhorting his son to keep driving their car down an increasingly dangerous road as a forest fire rages around them. “Dad, the car is heating up, it’s gonna explode,” the son insists. “We’re all right,” the dad replies. “Jesus, God, help us,” says the son. Thirty seconds later, the video goes black, leaving viewers to wonder whether this is posthumous footage. (They survived.)

I don’t want to have to wonder whether or not the protagonists of these videos lived to tell the tale; I just want to see some toddlers not bonk their heads on tables. For me, the sweet spots here are the three- and four-star videos, like this clip of a dad nonchalantly saving a kid from stumbling and banging her head on a playpen, or this guy, who makes a sliding save of a stroller that is about to roll into the street while never losing his grip on the package he holds in his left arm. I truly love this one, starring a Falstaffian father whose child is wearing Hulk hands as they both sit on the kid’s bed during story time. The prostheses cause the kid to lose his balance and fall off the bed. Dad calmly grabs him before his head hits the ground, puts him back on the bed, and then continues reading. Call it The Story of the Dad Who’s Done This Before.

A father catching his child falling off a bed during story time.

I am not a father, but these videos sort of make me want to become one. (I would not be surprised to learn that the whole subreddit is one insidious psy-op from Big Diaper.) Everyone wants to imagine themselves as the father swooping in like a superhero, or the child rescued from danger by a strong paternal arm. DadReflexes reduces fatherhood to a series of meme-able moments in which the day is inevitably saved by a steady hand that is always there.

The hand is always a biologically male one. Mothers are seldom seen in DadReflexes, and when they do appear, they appear as helpless spectators. The subreddit promotes the same brand of parental stereotyping that has been drummed into our heads by crappy sitcoms for decades. Dad is nature, Mom is nurture. Dad imparts life lessons while Mom maintains a supporting role. Mom holds the camera and films while Dad saves you from yourself. It’s all very Tim Allen.

Real-life parenting rarely resembles an episode of Home Improvement. The videos make being a good father seem instinctual, which strikes me as both a comfort and a curse.
If you’re a dad who doesn’t feel connected to your children as much as you wish you did, DadReflexes is probably very encouraging insofar as it implies that, in a primal way, you’ll inevitably rise to the occasion when crisis strikes—because that’s what dads do. But this primal version of Dad-dom omits the hard work, practice, and effort that so many dads and moms put in to get good at these things, because it’s not necessarily instinctual for everyone. The subreddit doesn’t show what happens in those moments after dad fails to catch the kid, or when he wasn’t even there to make the effort thanks to work obligations. (For those videos, you will have to visit r/TheDadFromTheSongCat’sInTheCradle.) DadReflexes makes fatherhood seem easier than I assume it actually is.

That’s basically fine, as long as we can recognize the artifice. We all know that real life is hard and that being a parent isn’t easy—that things go wrong more often than not, and that most of the time we won’t be around to catch the falling kid. That’s why it’s fun to applaud those times when we do.