I lost my virginity at nineteen. By modern standards that’s disturbingly puritanical. It’s even more alarming when one considers that my sexual education was a fifteen-minute film during the 7th grade featuring animated penises and a cartoon vagina. This speedy entrance is nothing I’m overly ashamed of though I don’t shout it from the church rafters; but unlike many parents, if my kids ever ask, I wouldn’t lie by offering up some Leave it to Beaver fantasy that gives the impression I was a chaste saint until I met their mom. It’s through acknowledging our mistakes that we can have the most profound impact on our children.
The Kübler-Ross model or as it’s commonly known The Five Stages of Grief says that individuals go through five distinct emotional states when faced with the reality of tragedy, most notably loss from death. These stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance can occur in a predictable and logical order, randomly, or in other cases, though rarely, not at all. Anyone who has dealt with the loss of a loved one or family member can appreciate the painful truth behind this theory.
Earlier this year I wrote article entitled, Would you let you date your daughter? It turned out to be one of those proverbially stakes in the ground for any father of girls. The title of the piece put forward a simple but powerful concept, would my actions and behaviors as a man, husband, and father still be as acceptable if it was my daughter’s boyfriend, fiancé, or spouse who was doing them instead of me?
Until I was a teenager the nearest thing our family had to legit technology was a rotary dial telephone and a four-station television set – five stations if Fox was coming in good that day. If there was more savvy stuff available it hadn’t made it to the back forty yet or we couldn’t afford it. I can still remember when my parents brought home our first video game – the Atari 2600. It had been out long enough other kids in school were already talking about it and my sister and I evidently whined enough they bought one just to shut us up.
My game of choice was Pitfall, I was without a doubt the best in the family and the first to beat it. I had learned that by standing on the alligator’s eyes you can jump across landing on their heads without getting eaten. My sister’s game was Frogger and my dad’s Ms. Pacman. Our mom couldn’t care less. Once we had it the family dynamic changed forever. No longer would we spend evenings around the television watching Dallas or Falcon Crest, instead we would fight for turns on who got to play next.
There were times while playing that the day would virtually waste away. I would be so enchanted by the pixels and the sounds that I became hypnotized with jumping rolling barrels and eating blue bobble eyed ghosts. But I would always come back to reality and remember there was a real world outside where I could play with friends, ride bikes, climb trees, or throw a tennis balls against the side of our house like I was Nolan Ryan pitching in the 9th inning. God, how my mother hated that.
I can’t ever remember my mom screaming at me to stop playing video games and go outside and do something. And unless I was in some hot streak gammer ‘zone’, dying for the 2,898 time was usually enough for me to realize I needed to stop or I was going to throw the controller out the window. And when that did happen never, and I mean never, did I expect, require, hope for, or demand my mom or dad to entertain me. I was creative enough I could usually find something to get into of my own accord which might include hitting my sister with a baseball bat or wrecking the four-wheeler.
If the ability for self-entertainment is hereditary, my kids got none of my genes. For my kids, if their recreation doesn’t include a Wii, iTouch or iPad, Netflix, Nickelodeon, or a laptop with an internet connection they spend the entire day laying around the couch like those bored models in Calvin Klein ads. It drives me to the brink of insanity. We live in a private gated community that is as safe as a police station. We have nice manicured grounds and my son has a friend his same age a stone throw from our front door. But instead of adventuring the great outdoors they’d rather snuggle up with a controller and argue about who gets to be Harry Potter.
It invariably happens that I reach my tipping point and demand all electronics go into the ‘OFF’ position and they need to find some other way to amuse themselves that doesn’t require an electrical plug. Then within minutes, as if rehearsed, comes the gripe-fest at how bored they are with pleas for, Daddy, can we go here? Daddy, can we do this? Daddy, can you buy me that? Daddy, can you do this with me? Daddy, make monkeys fly out your butt.
And when I can’t immediately drop the 649 other things I’m doing like washing clothes, cleaning floors, or earning a living they start in with their whiny Fran Dresher voices …I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!
And then I unleash one of my favorites on them: “You’re responsible for your own fun! If you’re bored, that means you’re boring!”
Am I the only one that has this problem? Or have they only gotten like this because they’re divorced kids and have become far too dependent on mom and dad who, after missing them for several days, does back handsprings, somersaults, and pulls a raccoon out of their hat with joy that they’re kids are back? And when did it become my parental responsibility, aside from clothing, feeding, keeping them warm, and ensuring they aren’t mauled by panther,s to be their walking three-ring circus replete with clowns and a bearded lady ready to perform at a moments notice – ot to mention the whole monkey butt thing? Besides I’m pretty sure that gig doesn’t pay well and has crappy benefits.
For the life of me I can’t, and won’t, be that dad who shoves his kids in front of a monitor because it’s easier nor am I going to be that parent who stresses out weeks before spring break each year scouring the internet for ‘fun ways to entertain your kids this spring break’. I graduated with a concentration in Finance, if they want to talk about the Theory of Supply and Demand I’m all in, otherwise I’m done pooping monkeys.
How many of us have vivid memories of that declaration levied in our direction after trying to stab our sister with a steak knife or inflicting $500 worth of lawnmower damage after the impromptu backyard tractor-pull.
I was scientifically proven, in my 7th grade science class, to be 94.56% perfect child. I made good grades, washed my hands before dinner, and never prompted a 2 am phone call to from the po-po. I’m not nor have I ever been a rebel; I simply don’t have the constitution or the skill set for causing serious trouble.
It’s no secret that I had a healthy fear of my father – and to a lesser extent my mom. My dad wasn’t a boisterous man or quick to ignite, but when he reached his breaking point everyone in our family stood straighter and walked lighter.
Because my mother was a stay-at-home during the early years of my childhood most days consisted of my mom, younger sister, and myself while dad was off laying waste to primordial forests so people could display family albums at the next Tupperware party.
While I was more apt to walk the straight and narrow, a lack of cable television, a swimming pool, and a neighborhood with kids left me enough idle time to get into the occasional mess. When those instances did occur my mother could usually take the matter into her own hands dishing out the appropriate penitence for the crime committed. However, there were extreme cases where the offense necessitated higher dominion and my mom would vow to escalate the issue once my father got home from work. Whereby I would attempt to sew myself into the carpet in hopes of becoming invisible.
And I can’t recall a time where my mom promised to tell my father about one of my bone-headed moves and then reconsidered. As much as she may have wanted to protect her one and only son from my dad’s potential wrath she made it clear he wouldn’t be lied to.
This idea of parental smoke and mirrors isn’t given much consideration until you receive a letter from the school principal asking for a ‘conference’. It’s an ethical dilemma for the healthiest of marriages but add into the equation a pinch of divorce and the hope of your ex instantly busting into flames and the entire situation becomes even dicier.
It’s the epitome of a double-edged sword.
On the one hand we all aspire to be that parent our kids an always talk to. No matter the issue or how serious the predicament it’s important they see us as someone they can confide in. But should that desire also mean keeping secrets from our spouse, or the other parent, are we doing our kids and relationships more harm that good?
The question I ponder is this. If my kid starts the conversation with “don’t tell dad/mom” or “don’t be mad” am I obligated to keep that vow? Let’s say my 16 year old gets his first speeding ticket. He has to tell someone because he doesn’t have the $125. Do I pay the citation and keep his mom out of the loop hoping beyond hope the insurance company doesn’t find out? If I keep her in the dark I’ve gained my son’s trust and increased the likelihood the’ll come to me with more serious issues. But what if I refuse to keep it ‘between us”, what then?
I’ve given this dynamic some thought and through my mental gymnastics I’ve settled it this way. As a father, if I discovered that my kids’ mother had kept secrets about their behaviors and dubious actions from me for fear of my anger, the response would automatically be “what else do I not know?”
Parenting is hard enough as it is, adding deception to an already arduous endeavor can only make matters worse. Set aside for a moment the impact secrets can have on the marriage itself, if parents begin deceiving each other for the sake of their kids the natural next step is the kids leveraging that imbalance for their own advantage. It’s a slippery slope that has the making of an us versus them parenting dynamic. And the co-parenting relationship makes for the ideal environment since each parent, intentionally or not, is usually trying to one-up the other.
It makes from the perfect parenting opportunity. In the case of my lead-footed son I believe the best approach would be to give him the opportunity to tell his mother on his own, with the understanding that if he doesn’t do so by a certain time I will. I believe this teaches him two lessons (1) that actions do have consequences that can’t be avoided and (2) his parents are on the same team – regardless of their marital situation. And it’s the angle I’ve already began taking with my 8 and 10 year olds today.
I’m not persuaded by the notion that it’s better to accommodate my kids so they’ll be more inclined to tell me everything. My priority is to be their parent – not their friend.
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.
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.
Their things are packed in a forest of plastic grocery bags and hand-me-down purses strewn at the top of the stairs. Organization is a quality we regularly work on. I’ve always maintained a penchant for being on time whether I am the guest or the host and I’m slowly teaching my children the same skill.