Letting my boy be a boy

My father was a perfectionist or as close to one as I’ve ever known. He wasn’t OCD or anal retentive; he didn’t expect bath towels to be hung precisely  on the rack and cans of food to be stacked in the cabinet using a protractor. He never demanded my sister and I make straight A’s or require socks to match our sweater. Instead, he was one of those types who could do just about anything perfectly on the first attempt. Build a barn? No problem. Overhaul the engine in a 1978 Ford F150? Done.  Run electricity in a basement? Please. He didn’t need a manual, diagram, or to consult a shaman. The man was blessed with an innate ability to learn through watching and figuring the rest out on the fly.

There’s only one problem I’ve found with someone who can do anything – they expect the rest of us to be the same way. Many, like my father, find it hard to understand why us plebs can’t install an air conditioning system and run 50 feet of water line over our lunch break. And it’s even worse if you’re working with, or God forbid, for one since most of us common folk don’t have the inherent capacity to just ‘figure it out’ in thirty seconds, like yours truly.

Being the son of a perfectionist wasn’t easy. Being the son of a perfectionist with no patience was nearly impossible. He not only expected me to learn to do it his way by osmosis, as soon as he noticed I was doing it wrong it became easier for him to just take the job over entirely.

If I heard the phrase “Give it here, I’ll do it myself” once I heard it 5,698 times.

Not actually my dad, but close.

Case in point. My father was a horseman; he had several beautiful saddle horses and routinely showed them in contests. As my sister and I got older they became his children, along with a black lap dog mutt that I can’t remember the name of, and paid each one special care and attention. One afternoon he was working out one of his chestnut sorrel stallions in preparation for a show the coming weekend. Noticing he had dismounted for a few minutes I inquired if I could take the steed around the track. Within minutes of making my way down the well-worn path my father comes barreling towards me with arms flailing, yelling at the top of his lungs:

“Get off, you’re going to ruin him!”

Apparently I wasn’t riding with the proper gait and he was concerned the horse would become confused as a result. So he immediately jumped back on and proceeded to undo the damage I had evidently inflicted.


I have dealt with confidence issues my entire life. It’s manifest itself in a fear of failing or disappointing others. To my mind the risk of failure or letting down someone is the primary motivator and prevents me from taking  risks. While it’s easy to see how my childhood led to this I can’t blame my dad, he was brought up in much the same way and was doing things how he was raised.

It’s taken hours of counseling and analysis to recognize this behavioral pattern and where it came from. While I’m far from curing the nasty habit and doubt I’ll rid myself of it entirely, the introspection has created a level of sensitivity to this form of behavior when dealing with my son that my father was never able to take notice of in dealing with me.

My son is eight years old this weekend. He’s getting to the point where I can remember myself at that age. It’s also around this age when the influences, brought about when my father chose convenience over right parenting, began that would eventually lead to my adulthood insecurities and self doubt. And it’s the same age where I can now understand why he sometimes handled things the way he did. My son’s age and his desire to lend dad a hand is usually more of a hindrance than a help. He’s also beginning to ask, often unconsciously, for more responsibility and independence. He wants to do more on his own, explore the world around him without me, and embark on adventures outside the four walls of our protective castle.

And it’s here that, for me,  being a parent becomes a labor of self-sacrifice. I know I can’t allow my own impatience and desire for a convenient and trouble-free life to erode my son’s budding confidence. I can’t let my type-A personality take over and help him grow into a man full of insecurities because I hid my self-interest behind the veil of trying to be a protective parent. Nor can I let my impulse to ‘get it done’ take precedent and instill a belief that he can’t do anything right.

But I also know all that’s easier said than done.

In those unexpected moments, when the real parenting happens, I will sometimes catch myself thinking how this would be made so much easier if I just did it instead of waiting for him to learn – since chances are I’ll need to go back and fix what he messed up anyway; or I’ll find  myself telling him he can’t go somewhere because of an irrational unspoken fear of mine, or warning him that he shouldn’t do this or that  because I wasn’t able to the same at his age. It’s in these moments where I’m still learning to sacrifice my own comfort and peace of mind for the sake of his childhood. And I’m learning to do this the only way I know how, by thinking back to my past and how I felt when I was in my son’s shoes, and how I now wish my father would have done some things differently and wondering what might have happened it he had.

In other words, it’s that ever-present reminder of how I need to let the boy be a boy.

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14 responses to Letting my boy be a boy

  1. This is so great!! Nice to know I’m not alone in the same struggles.

  2. Kimberly

    1st – Happy Birthday to your Son
    2nd- just the fact you realize it may be inconvienent he needs to help you and learn from you says alot about the kind of father you are. we moms go through the same things for instance while cleaning when my girls were little i would give them a spray bottle with water and a rag and let them go to town helping mommy, even though after they went to bed i would need to redo thier help lol, but they never knew it and were so very proud they could help.

  3. Dawn

    You should fix or build something and then teach your son. Then repeat. Then repeat together. Win. Win. Just because we have the means to hire someone to do it doesn’t mean we always should. You can do it and what moments with your children! Likely they will learn how to handle frustration in the process too! Now that’s a gift that can’t be bought and they are the best. 🙂

  4. Papa – Author

    I just recognize it. I’d by lying if I said I did it perfectly.

  5. I think it’s generally hard for a lot of parents to let their kids explore the world and do things on their own. Since my son was little he’s loved cooking with me. He’s been wanting to make his own eggs since he was 5 but I was afraid to let him cook by himself in fear that he would either burn himself or burn down the house. But, I finally let that go and thought, “He’ll learn.” and trust that burning down the house wasn’t going to happen. He did burn himself a few times, but it didn’t deter him. He’s now more careful. That’s just one example of the things he’s wanted to do that I’ve had a hard time with.

    So I can’t imagine how having that instinctual parenting fear combined with what you grew up with, will truly affect you. It’s great that you’re able to recognize it and make sure you don’t do the same with your son.

  6. Sparkle

    Omg. I am soooo guilty of doing this with my daughter. Because of it we are having issues to where she is “disobeying” me by doing certain things I wouldn’t normally let her do behind my back. She is barely getting to a point where I am trusting her to do more things. It’s not necessarily that I don’t trust her, I just don’t want her to be hurt, kidnapped, or influenced negatively by the wrong people, music, etc. Reading this back to myself, I feel like an idiot LOL. Apparently I need to start trusting her to make her own success & mistakes then learn from them w/ my guidance of course.

  7. Jennifer

    My boys are 12 & 9…I don’t know what their dad teaches them @ his house, but at mom’s… I strive to teach them work ethic (around the home & yard) & responsibility! That’s the most important for boys…especially starting @ their age!

  8. Melanie

    I was blown away reading this. You know those times when you wonder who or what led you to a certain place? Yeah, like that. You are the hurt little boy and I am the girl who never had a “Daddy”.
    My dad always (seemed to have) loved his model trains, old Oldsmobile’s and books more than he loved me. He worried about his job, stock trading, money…. worried about anything more than he worried about my emotional health and being my “Daddy”. My mother and I rode and showed horses and still share a bond cemented early on by that shared love. My father would bring his dog along once a year to watch me ride in one class at one show. He would make a halfhearted effort to hide the fact that he had absolutely no interest in any of it. When I left the ring he wouldn’t even wait for the results to see how I had placed. He would pat the horse on the forehead (which they hated) and pat me on the head (which I still hate) and say “good job horse, good job Mel” then he and the dog would get back in the car and escape. At least once a year he would present my mother and me with a spreadsheet detailing every cent he so begrudgingly spent on our “hobby”. Mom got a job at the tack store, I helped at the same store in high school when I could then, when I was older, I braided the manes of other people’s horses for money so we could escape his financial guilt trips. When I divorced and moved back to my hometown in anticipation of my aging parents needing help around the house (instead of far away as my brother had) he presented me with a spreadsheet he had been keeping from all the times he had “helped me out” financially right down to the $9.00 locks for the storage unit I was renting. Welcome home honey, thanks for deciding to come back to help us rather than moving to California or Florida.
    At 42 I’ve spent a lifetime seeking his approval which led to seeking approval from men and ending up with “damaged’ men who needed me to manage their lives which (temporarily) gave me a sense of worth.
    In the past five years I have heard from my mother and my parent’s family friends that my father would say how proud he was of me and admired my intellect and work ethic. He has never told me that directly nor can I remember the last time he told me he loved me.
    Now my father is dying. At the funeral of a dear family friend this spring I cried through the friend’s 4 children giving glowing eulogies about their wonderful Daddy. I didn’t cry for them; I cried because I have no idea how I am supposed to stand up at my prickly father’s impending memorial service and say anything warm and fuzzy about him.
    So here I am at the turning point from having recognized where my behaviors come from and understanding them to moving into the “You’re valuable so don’t do that shit anymore” phase. At the same time, as the only kid in town, I have stepped into caretaker role for my dying father and my mother (who gets it but is also co-dependent). One minute I cry because I am sad to see my strong father wasting away; the next he says or does something that triggers serious resentment and makes the dam threaten to burst.
    My support group includes several other women friends who have lost their fathers. They have been very valuable in helping me get through this but there is one huge difference: They were Daddy’s Little Girl and I wasn’t. There is a huge difference in their grieving and mourning than what I am going through and am going to go through. I can’t help but think “but at least you had a Daddy.”
    There is no sense in discussing my feelings with him now for several reasons: We’ve never discussed feelings and I don’t think he is capable. Sure there is a chance that it would help me heal and move forward but is it worth the cost of breaking my dying father’s heart to have him hear that he is the reason for his being disappointed in my choices in men? I can’t think it so. I’ve moved past my need for answers and am moving on to solutions. He, like your father, was raised that way. That’s all he knew. I can’t help but feel sorry for him because he missed out on 42 years of his Daddy’s Little Girl’s love.
    Kudos on your efforts to break the chain and on being a good Daddy!

  9. Papa – Author

    Thanks Melanie.

    I can only speak to you as a father myself and someone whose been there in a similar vein as you as a child. I was too young to understand or share some of my feelings with my father before he died. I will never get that opportunity now. Though if he hadn’t and I know what I know now I would have done so. None of us are perfect and sometimes it’s what we think we need the least that we actually need the most.

    Clearly both of our fathers suffered their own father wounds. They were doing only what they thought they were supposed to do but I would have loved to share with my dad what he could have done differently.

  10. Thanks Kurt,
    That is the thought that keeps me up at night. I am working on a letter because I find it easier to put my words on paper. The other benefit is that he can read it and absorb without (hopefully) becoming angry and defensive. I’m not sure I can phrase it as ‘what he could have done differently’ because he will take it as an attack. Going to have to be very careful and word it more like I know we never had (this) but you did teach me (this) so it’s a balance of getting my point across and telling him I love him at the same time.
    Love the Blog but you kept me up half the night reading! Lol!

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