A 30-something man suddenly turns and hurls himself full-length to yank his toddler from the path of a speeding car. A child tumbling off the back of a horse is plucked from mid-air a second before his head strikes the ground. A small girl on a bike avoids a mouthful of broken teeth when her father lunges in to avert a head-on collision with a stationary truck.
Caught on camera, this type of last-ditch rescue has become something of a phenomenon in digital culture, where they are invariably signposted by the hashtag #dadreflexes. They regularly pop up on social media while the Reddit feed r/DadReflexes boasts well over half a million subscribers.
Amid often blurry footage of close shaves and near misses, dads are presented as a wondrous hybrid of human shield / safety net / ninja. With zero regard for their own safety, they leap into action to save their kids from serious injury and worse.
On one level, the videos deliver raw entertainment. Some things in life – penalty shootouts, knife-throwing, Russian roulette – are inherently dramatic. Into that category you can add watching a young girl being saved from the jaws of a hungry sea-lion(!). Or the dangling boy whose grip finally gives way at the top of the escalator only for him to be caught by a quick-thinking passer-by.
In these high-stakes examples, the viewer is rocked by the adrenaline-spiking drama then soothed by the dopamine hit of relief. In examples where the stakes are more benign, dad reflexes can offer physical slapstick with a happy ending. Sometimes – when, for example, the father holding the sleeping baby in the stands nonchalantly catches the incoming baseball one-handed – well, you simply marvel at a job well done. But in all these scenarios, dad reflexes make for compulsively feel-good viewing.
Yet the appeal goes deeper than that. Dad reflexes are reassuring on multiple levels. What they present is a wholesome version of virility that’s particularly welcome at a time when traditional gender roles are more fraught than ever and “masculinity” is invariably preceded with “toxic”.
Mums, of course, can also display save-the-day reflexes, too. But a quick glance at Instagram and YouTube shows their efforts don’t resonate as strongly in the collective psyche. Dad reflexes offer a comforting familiarity because they’re a shameless throwback to the archetype of the father as unyielding protector. That may well be a gender stereotype, but it’s a comforting one, too. Plus even the most humourless PC warrior would struggle to find dad reflexes that objectionable given that saving a child from physical harm is incontestably “a good thing”.
Dad reflexes appeal to our inner child, too, by projecting an idealised version of parenthood. Here is the father as superhero – ever vigilant and infallible, ready to step in whenever necessary. This concept may not ring even vaguely true when you reflect on your personal upbringing. But even if you had a dad who was absent, distant or simply too busy, it remains the fantasy benchmark. Dad reflexes show a father who’s hands-on when it really counts.
As fathers ourselves the videos also hit the spot, in part, because they allay our deepest fears. We know that being a helicopter parent is a bad idea. We should let our kids scuff their knees and fall out of the odd tree to help them become sturdy and resilient. Yet every dad’s greatest fear is that something terrible will happen to our children.
The dad reflex stands in stark defiance to that idea. If you keep your wits about you, the videos suggest, then you can shield your child from pain or stop them flying head-first off that runaway toboggan.
More pertinently, dad reflexes suggest that, when it comes to the crunch, fatherhood is instinctive. They push the belief that dads are hard-wired with some primal sense to look after our kids. That we are biologically primed for this vital role. This is a strangely consoling prospect, especially when many of us are struggling to get a handle on a shit-ton of parental issues – toilet-training, screen-time, home-schooling, take your pick…
Dad reflexes promote the welcome idea that, you know what? You got this. All you need to do for this fatherhood caper is to show up and keep your kid somewhere in your peripheral vision. Trust in your paternal instincts. Should that sea lion rear up again, one thing is for sure: you’ll be ready.