After Ben Sowards received a call from the secretary at his 6-year-old daughter’s school, telling him that he had to come and pick up Valerie because she’d accidentally peed her pants, the Enoch, Utah, dad knew exactly what he needed to do.
As another daughter, Lucinda, 17, looked on and snapped a quick photo to show the rest of the family, Sowards quickly splashed water all over the front of his pants, then hurried over to Enoch Elementary School on April 14 to get Valerie from kindergarten.
What he didn’t anticipate is that Lucinda would post the snapshot on Twitter and that it would go viral, with thousands of people around the world now praising him for the unique and humorous way that he showed support for his daughter.
Although some wondered if he was inspired by a scene in the 1995 Adam Sandler film “Billy Madison,” where Sandler decides to get his pants wet in support of a fellow student, “that honestly didn’t even enter my mind,” Sowards, 40, a professor of illustration at Southern Utah University, tells PEOPLE.
“With parenting, a lot of what you do is based on instinct,” he says. “It was a gut reaction. I wanted to demonstrate in a clear way that I love my child and it didn’t matter to me that she’d peed her pants. I knew that ‘wetting’ my own pants would cheer her up and help her to handle the embarrassment.”
When he arrived at the school on the last full day before spring break, Sowards found his daughter in the office, staring down quietly at her feet, with her coat wrapped around her waist.
“I said, ‘Honey, I need to borrow your backpack — I’ve had my own accident,'” he says. “She gave me this look of disbelief with one eye — any dad knows what I’m talking about — and I knew immediately that it was a success.”
“As we left the office,” Sowards tells PEOPLE, “I held her backpack over the front of my pants and we walked out of there like we were getting away with something. Then we laughed all the way home. I accused her of splashing apple juice all over herself to get out of school early, and she accused me of faking it as well. Once the tension was released and she realized that she wasn’t in trouble, it all turned out great.”
Meanwhile, Lucinda had shared the photo of Sowards in his wet pants on Twitter so that her friends and her mom, Connie, who was in Salt Lake City on a business trip, could see what her dad was up to.
“My dad has always had a great sense of humor,” she tells PEOPLE, “and he’s always taught me to use humor to handle life’s challenges. When I was in the 8th grade, I fell while I was ice skating and hurt my face pretty bad. My dad, knowing that I was worried, painted a black eye on himself to make me laugh. So it was just like him to make it look like he’d wet his pants for my little sister.”
Sowards says there is a reason behind his unique approach to parenting. He and Connie have 11 children, including four that were recently adopted from foster care.
“Kids are going to get teased no matter what,” he says, “but if they’re prepared for that with a little self confidence and have assurance that they are loved, they can weather that teasing. I want my children to be equipped to laugh at life. And if I can do that by splashing water all over the front of my pants, why not? It turned a sad moment for my daughter into a happy one.”