undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


12 Comments

Dear Soccer Dad, Do you want your son to hate you?

kicking-and-screaming“Isaiah, move up! Move up!”

“Isaiah, what kind of a kick was that?”

“Isaiah, why you giving up, bud?”

These shouts ring from the sidelines a few feet away from me on a brisk October Saturday morning. I’m there to watch my son in the town’s U9 soccer league, and I’m loving being a newly christened soccer dad. There’s something great about having a new home team and it being your son’s. But what’s up with this dude down the line?

There are all sorts of soccer dad’s, as I’m beginning to learn. Surprisingly, the most popular version is the absent soccer dad, judging by the lack of men on the sidelines (but that’s fodder for another post). There are also the quiet watchers, the cheerers and, apparently, the beraters. I’m surprised to learn that I’m a cheerer, and a very vocal one. Like, verging-on-annoying-cheerer.

As a kid, I was always a quiet sports spectator. Sure, I would cheer and clap when a point was made or a ball was saved, but I never shouted words of encouragement or cheered for specific players. I was somewhat sports illiterate growing up, and so I think the prospect of shouting encouragement or advice felt overzealous or even hypocritical.

But now I see these 8-year-olds running their hearts out on the field and I want them to know we’re cheering for them. Although I’m historically bad about remembering kids names, I’ve been pretty good at learning most of the team members’ first name at this point in the season. I shout words of encouragement for each of them as they receive the ball, I praise their defense and passing, and I cheer when a ball is saved and (less frequently…we’re on a losing streak) when a goal is scored. Each time, I try to call the player by name.

I explain all this to convey that I understand this desire to be vocal on the sidelines. I’m not there to be a passive observer, but Isaiah’s dad takes active support to a new level, by becoming coach, ref, judge, and asshole. He’s the guy who’s there before every practice, running the ball with his son and giving him lots of pointers. He sits through practice and yells advice, peppered with lots of frustrated commentary. Game days are by far the worst. He shouts to his kid about where to be on the field (even when counter to the coach’s strategy). He yells at him to move faster or stop giving up. He berates him for slowing down, giving up the ball, or allowing a pass.

It’s hard sitting on the sidelines near this guy, hearing all this. My imaginary monologue to him goes something like this:

“Do you want your son to grow up hating you? Because that’s what you’re doing. Only two things can come out of this. Either he grows up hating and rejecting his dad who always gave him a hard time, or he grows up always trying to please you, while at the same time feeling like he’s never good enough. In the second scenario, he’s likely to treat his own kids to a life of insults because it’s his only model for how to be engaged as a dad. Pull back a bit dude. It’s great that you’re here, but let the coach coach, and chill out a bit.”

I can’t, however, imagine a scenario in which I have the balls big enough to confront this guy with my diatribe. But these same sentiments run though my mind each time I hear him. I don’t see anyone else (aside from my wife) holding the discomfort of hearing this guy’s comments, but I can’t imagine other parents find it unproblematic. Plus, the coach is always on the opposite side of the field from the spectators, and so a lot of it happens off the coach’s radar. Perhaps the most skilled and emotionally cognizant coach would be able to finesse a conversation with all parents about etiquette and the proper show of support.

But what do I do? As the season goes along and I become more invested in my son’s team and its players, what do I do with my discomfort and pity for this kid who’s given such a hard time by his dad. For now, when I see him set up his chair on the sidelines, I’ll set up mine a few dozen feet away. I’ll focus on the game and try to drown out his words, but that poor kid will hear them for the rest of his life.

Advertisements


6 Comments

Karma Police

kismet10cSometimes I have no fun at all, and sometimes it’s my own damn fault.

Random groups of children and parents set the stage for some of my most frustrating experiences. For instance, this April vacation, my son and I had some alone time and planned a day around robots. A local museum was hosting free guided tour of its robotics exhibit for kids and families. The issue was that it was free and first-come-first-served to only 25 participants, which was a set-up for all sorts of anxiety.

My son and I made a day out of it. After taking the train early and having breakfast, we charged through the rain and stood outside of the still-closed museum under an awning. Eventually making it inside, we had to wait until 30 minutes prior to the tour to receive a free ticket. We scoped out the reception desk, and at exactly 10:30, they started giving tickets away. Someone’s dad cut in front of a line that included me and women with strollers. I was mildly annoyed, but got my tickets and we waited.

When the tour started, they cordoned off the entire wing, so that only tour participants could take part. We felt very special. The tour started well, with the curator giving the kids stickies to put on the exhibits they found most interesting and most scary. I noted that the tour seemed small, with only about 20 people. Finally, about 10 minutes late, another family of five, a mom and her 2 pre-teen girls and 2 teenage boys showed up. Her kids started on the periphery of the group, while she found a bench all to herself, staring at her cell phone.  It took about 5 minutes for her girls to stray from the group and wander the deserted hall, and after about 10 minutes her boys followed suit, until the entire family was doing their own thing and mom was staring at her phone.

I kept glaring at them. I kept thinking about how disrespectful it was to the tour guide. I kept thinking about all the other families in the museum who had the opportunity of a private tour stripped from them by these people who weren’t taking advantage of it.

About 30 minutes into the tour, that family left the exhibit, never to return. I was left up on my moral high horse, alone with my frustrations.

The issue with being up there on my moral high horse was that I wasn’t down in the tour with my son. It was hard for me to put away my anger and instead focus on the fun that was happening right in front of me. This happens to me a lot, especially around children and their parents. Inevitably there’s somebody that’s out of control or at least troublesome: the kid who runs around, or disturbs the group, or makes fun of the exhibits, or barrels over other kids. But that’s not the unnerving part; after all, they’re just kids. In most cases, these kids are chaperoned by parents who aren’t doing anything. They sit back on their phones, or appear oblivious, or throw their hands up with a “whatcha gonna do” face. This is the thing that drives me bonkers.

“We live in a society, people!” my inner George Costanza screams. The only way to enjoy the fruits of society is by sharing them. When parents don’t teach their kids to share space, time, and resources, then kids become self-serving, domineering adults. And so standing in that tour group, my mind wanders to the future; to these kids growing up and populating a world where my son has to share the highway with them as they swerve through traffic, or stand in line while they cut in front for their morning coffee, or work in an office where they steal his ideas and pawn them off as their own. I think of a million different scenarios about how the world is (and will) become a worse place because kids aren’t taught about how to respect others.

It all sounds very good as a write it. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to stop there. End of post. People suck.

But what I’m really trying to convey is the way I feel obligated to be the morality/karma police in these situations. Looking around the tour group, there were obviously children who were participating, and their parents appeared just as engaged. Even the curator seemed to be ignoring the wandering family and going about her business, touring the group. Why was I the one steaming? Why did I feel as though I had to hold the weight of other people’s decisions?

I think that is the hardest part for me. I don’t want to lose that part of me that discerns behaviors that I don’t want to cultivate in my son. I also don’t want to be so fixated on that discernment that it takes over my mind and disallows me from enjoying the moment in spite of others. I’m sure the other parents in the group noticed this wandering family. I’m sure some of them even made judgements about their behavior. But somehow, they were able to live and let live, or perhaps even forgive and forget. For me, it never feels easy.

 


2 Comments

Bruce Lee is Dead: A Fish Burial

150_5092Coming home from a grueling day of work this past week, I found my wife sitting at the kitchen table with my son standing at her side. They stared at me, tears welling up in my son’s eyes.

“Bruce Lee is dead,” my wife said. My son burst out crying and nuzzled his face into my wife’s neck.

Bruce Lee was one of the four Koi fish we keep in our small backyard pond. The pond has been there since we moved in two years ago, but only last May did we buy four 5-inch long koi to fill the pond and, by the end of the summer, each was at least a foot long. Bruce Lee was named for his impressive golden scales with black trim, reminiscent of his name-sake’s iconic jumpsuit from the movie Game of Death.

Bruce Lee had been sick for a few weeks, and I made several efforts to help him, but his scales were inflamed and he lost his equilibrium at times. I was really torn up about him being sick, trying whatever I could to help a situation that might have been inevitable. I felt a great deal of responsibility to make it better.

But that day when I came home to find the fished had died, I wasn’t anguished by the news. In fact, it was a relief. I knew the ordeal was over, the pain that he might have felt was done. In fact, my only sympathies were for my son, who was devastated.  He was the one to find him dead, which was heart-breaking for him. I wanted to comfort him.

But instead of sitting with his sadness, I jumped into fix-it mode. I knew I had to get the fish out of the pond and into the ground before the sun went down. Right after dinner, I rushed my son outside so we could dig a hole and net our dead friend.

While waiting for my wife before the burial, my son wrote a letter to the fish. He asked me to contribute every other line, in a sort of joint eulogy. We wrote that we’d miss him, that the other fish would miss him, that we hoped he was happy in the big pond in the sky. After writing his final words, my son sank his 7-year-old face into my neck and burst into tears. I was surprised at how much this affected him, and had to take stock in the situation.

Bruce LeeI have this tendency to compartmentalize sad feelings in order to get the job done. If something shocking or saddening happens, I somehow feel that it’s my duty to trudge forward. In these situations, it sometimes helps that I put aside my feelings so that things get done. For instance, there was a time when my son spews vomit all over the bed in the middle of the night, coating every fabric-covered surface in yuck. While my wife helps our son to the bathroom, I had the gross job of cleaning up. Or when the basement toilet backs up and spits sewage all over the floor, I’m the one cleaning up. When things are gross or shocking, I put away my feelings, put on my “man-hat”, and git-r-done. In these very practical situations, it works. Vomit and feces don’t pick up themselves.

But this same compartmentalization can happen when there’s loss, and the job needs to be done to pick things up and move along. I have learned the hard way that this is not the way to deal with grief. When there has been loss or great sadness, there are times when I cordon off my feelings and move forward. There’s a part of me that feels like this is just how I take care of others. I want to help get them to a better place. I want to show them hope. But in doing so, I can overlook the grief and the anguish, as though they don’t exist. My approach can leave others feeling unsupported and overlooked. Granted, sometimes there needs to be a pragmatic voice within a family when things are gloomy, but to charge forward solely in a utilitarian mode only denies others their sadness.

Charging forward also denies my own sadness. When I put my grief to the side in order to make things better, I don’t sit with the sadness of it all and end up feeling wrecked in the end, while my loved ones feel overlooked.

All of this came back as I sat at the kitchen table with my son, composing a fish eulogy. I had to take a breath, and sit with the sadness of a boy who had bought, named, and nurtured a 5-inch baby fish into a 14-inch glory. He was heartbroken, and I couldn’t go too fast. I had to sit with the sadness of it all. I had toforget the waning sunlight and the hardened ground and think about this small boy who had just confronted death face-to-face. Sure there was a job to be done, but that job was right in front of me: hugging my son and accepting his tears.

 


1 Comment

The Butt of Space

theresnoplacelikespace_ss3This is the first (and perhaps last) blog post  I’ve allowed my son to title. According to him the full title should be “Dr. Seuss Explores the Butt of Space”, but something about the Cat in the Hat’s proctological leanings really turned me off. The post captures a moment that truly exemplifies the sense of humor my wife and I have passed down to our son.

We’ve had a bunch of Dr. Seuss books in our home since our son was a baby, even the Seussian books published in the good doctor’s name posthumously, that tend to be more educational and less whimsical. One of those is the Cat in the Hat space book, There’s No Place Like Space.

The other day, my son brings me the book, giddily instructing me to, “Look what it says!”

He points to the page with the mnemonic for remembering the planets’ names:

  • Mallory………Mercury
  • Valerie……….Venus
  • Emily…………Earth
  • Mickels………Mars
  • just…………….Jupiter
  • saved………….Saturn
  • up………………Uranus
  • nine hundred and ninety-nine……………Neptune
  • nickels.

“I know, I know,” I said, “They left out Pluto.” (Which he, like every other 7-year-old I’ve ever met, has always resented.)

“No, no,” he points to the Uranus line. “Look!”

I read it again, “Up…Uranus.”

“Get it? Up Uranus, like up your butt!”

“Yeah, I get it.”


3 Comments

Quarter Naked

broncos-cheerleaders(2)My son was forced to suffer through several hours of football this past Sunday, as we watched the conference championships. He’s a reluctant football fan, and gets quite squirrelly as the game persists. His mind wanders and he begins asking random questions. Midway through the second quarter he asked,

“Why are the cheerleaders a quarter naked?”

Good question, I thought, but chickened out and punted it to my wife. She responded with something to the effect of, “People think it’s sexy.”

This is the tricky thing with 2nd graders: they’re inquisitive about all sorts of stuff, and the older they get, the more they begin noticing adult things in the world around them. In the case of my 2nd grader’s questions, the answers are sometimes so complex that I’m flooded with a multitude of ways to answer. To respond to his question about “quarter naked” cheerleaders, do I talk about the ways in which women were historically disallowed from playing sports and relegated to cheering on the sidelines? Do I talk about the long history of high school culture in the US, in which the most popular and therefore most attractive girls are chosen as cheerleaders? Do I tell him about how grown men are so similar to high school boys that we continue the tradition of cheerleading in our major sports institutions? Do I mention that one of the few sports his dad enjoys watching is famous for its misogyny?

Thank god for my wife.  “People think it’s sexy” was probably the most pithy answer.

The whole “sexy” thing has been an interesting term to navigate while parenting. It’s a word he knows because it’s bandied about in every day life so readily. One of the ways he’s exposed to “sexy” things is when people kiss in movies or books. It’s been interesting reading the Harry Potter series to him, because as the characters get older, they appropriately deal with more adolescent topics, like flirtation, jealousy, and kissing. It’s been interesting noticing how my son’s reactions (and mine) have evolved over time. At first, reading about or seeing kisses in the movies was simply met with silent confusion and a comical look. At some point, the awkward silence was broken with his exclamation of “Awkward!”  We’re a family of comics, so the break in tension with this comic zinger was often hilarious and welcomed.

And then, something switched to make him say, “Inappropriate!”  My wife and I discerned that it must have had to do with the fact that Harry and Cho Chang get all kissy-faced in school. As a 2nd grader, my son was aware that there’s appropriate and inappropriate school behavior, and kissing obviously wasn’t something (2nd grade) students were supposed to do in school! We weren’t keen on that one, since we didn’t want him thinking it was necessarily “inappropriate” for teenagers to kiss. Thankfully, the reaction evolved to the less rule-based response: “Ooh la la!” I believe that one came from my wife, during Harry Potter’s run-in with the lovely French witches of Beauxbatons Academy. So, that’s now the comic relief when something “sexy” is going on. If someone kisses in a book or movie, if someone’s wearing a slinky dress, if teenagers go out on a date, one of us proclaims “ooh la la” and move along.

I’m good with “ooh la la’s” for now. It’s baby steps for me, until we reach middle school. Then, quarter naked cheerleaders will be the least of my worries, I’m sure.


18 Comments

Chucking the iPad for 2014

noipadforyouI’m not big on resolutions, but find that the new year is always a time of reflection and hope.  As I look back on 2013, I feel like it’s a personal anomaly. Prior to this year, I hadn’t owned a smart device. I was limited to the non-texting dumb-phone that the salesperson made fun of me for buying back in 2011. But for all of 2013, I had access to an iPad, which changed my life, for the worse.

Here are the two things that are great/terrible about technology. One, it keeps me connected. Two, it allows me instant access to any information I need. On the first account, I became hyper-fascinated over the course of this year with my social media and communication possibilities, like facebook, twitter, email, and my blog. I would incessantly check for returned emails, blog responses, and new facebook posts. Aside from some very positive connections with bloggers over the past year, most of the time was wasted seeking fleeting personal validation. I think there’s a hunger in each of us for connection, recognition, and validation, which is why technology and social media are so addicting. They feed us what we need most as social beings. However, it’s a virtual or disconnected form of contact that isn’t quite as gratifying as coffee with a friend, a hug from a relative, or a kiss from my wife. So, it leaves me feeling manic and spent.

On the second account, devices give us instant access to any information we want. I think people are naturally curious, and we’re prone to asking questions. For instance, re-watching Silver Linings Playbook yesterday, I wanted to know whether Bradley Cooper’s nose scar was real, how far Baltimore is from Philly, what crabby snacks and homemades are, and what other movies the slimeball bookie friend had been in. Those questions all coursed through my mind in the span of one scene. I wanted to grab my iPad and check the answers to all of them. But if I had, I’d no longer be watching a movie with my wife, but instead trailing off into my own world of curiosity. Day to day I constantly want to know answers to my questions, and have lost the ability to ponder things on my own and to tolerate not knowing something.

I frequently think back to a picture my son had drawn of me about half a year ago, with me staring at my iPad. In some ways, this had been the picture that occupied his mind when thinking of me, and I hated it. Will my son remember me as the dad with his nose pressed up against a screen?

For 2014, I’m putting the iPad away. I don’t need to be militant. I don’t need to be extremist. But when I’m home and my family’s awake, that thing goes in a drawer or in a bag, and is out of reach. It’s too tempting to have it close, to have it accessible. Because in the end, what will be more important? How many likes my post receives? Jennifer Lawrence’s birthplace? Or that picture of me that resides in my son’s brain when he thinks about his dad?


8 Comments

My Son’s Just Not That Into Yours

kids arguing

My question is this: When should we as parents intervene at the parent-to-parent level, and when should we simply coach our kids to navigate their own relationships?

My neighbor is such a pain that I’ve considered dedicating a separate blog to my conflicts with him. Instead, I hold back and relegate a few choice posts to our ongoing feuds. The latest conversation with him was an interesting mix of land disputes, fatherhood, and childhood friendship.

The guy next door was in a tizzy about the way I raked my leaves, and started bullying me about how I had to remove them from a certain wooded area of my lot, sending me emails citing town ordinances. After I corrected his misinterpretation of the law, he explained that his beef had more to do with “unresolved issues” than it did with the leaves, so he invited a conversation.

Turned out he was concerned about the disintegration of his son’s relationship with my son. My son hadn’t played with his son since the beginning of the summer, and my neighbor felt as though I had turned my son away from his. The back-story is that his son and mine played together for about a year. His son is a little socially awkward and a bit of a trouble-maker. He would frequently refuse to go home when his parents asked for him or would ignore my or my wife’s redirections if he was breaking our house rules. Nothing too egregious, to the point of us having a sit-down with parents, but enough to be annoying. The kid also had a butt fascination, frequently trying to hit people in their’s during light sabre battles, ramming his head into my wife’s butt, and investigating the butts of our pets. Simply put, he’s a little weird.

After a while, we made sure that the boys were always in sight so that we could monitor a bit more closely. My son is the perpetual rule-follower, so he tends to steer clear of anyone in violation of the rules. By the beginning of the summer, he was pulling away, frequently putting the kid off when he showed up at our door, suggesting they play after lunch or the next day. When the kid showed up again, my son would decline a second time.

Finally, we sat our son down and asked why he didn’t want to play anymore. “I’m burnt out,” was his reply, as though he was some mid-life professional discussing a career change. We told him that he needed to be upfront with his friend; if he wanted to take break, then he should tell him that. Afterwards, he successfully had a conversation with the boy, saying he wanted “to take a break from play-dates over the summer.”  The kid got it, and stayed away…

…until the end of the summer, when re was ringing our doorbell again.  My son turned him away a few times, and the kid finally stopped coming over.

So when my neighbor sat me down, he was in a huff that we hadn’t shown him the respect of letting him know that my son didn’t want to play with his. He felt it was unfair for him as a parent to keep sending his son over to our house, only to set him up for rejection. I could empathize with that experience, and kind of felt badly. But the question arose: How much should we as parents intervene at the parent-to-parent level, and how much should we help our kids navigate their own relationships?

In this particular situation, there wasn’t anything bad enough that prompted us to intervene directly in the boys’ relationship. There wasn’t outright bullying or even arguments, there wasn’t meanness or cruelty or even terrible violations of rules. In most of those cases, my wife or I would have likely stepped in or approached a parent. This was just the whittling away of a relationship based on a poor fit. My son didn’t want to play much anymore and couldn’t articulate a specific reason. I’m left to assume that the two just didn’t click, and perhaps even that my son thought that the other boy was a bit odd or maybe a trouble-maker.

What would I have said to the other parents in that case?  “My son just isn’t that into yours?”  “My son thinks your kid’s kind of a trouble-maker”  “Don’t send your kid over anymore because he’s a bit odd?”  I can’t fathom what I would have said. Plus, this wasn’t an abrupt thing. Just like adults can, these kids had drifted apart over time, and there wasn’t any specific marker that indicated to me that I should really go talk to the parent.

In the end, my neighbor made me feel like a bad parent. As though I hadn’t been thoughtful enough as a parent to step in and say something to my son’s friend’s dad. I felt this guilty tailspin. Had I mis-stepped? Would a “good” parent have done something different? I started resenting this other parent for his judgments, especially if he hadn’t been following his own advice, which smacked of hippocracy. If he had wanted to have a conversation about things as the relationship was having a part, then that responsibility fell upon him. Plus the added accusation of me “turning my son against his” was over the top.

In the end, it’s about deciding the line for ourselves. At times, kids need to navigate their own relationships, which can be confusing. Our job as parents in this case was to help our son be clear with his friend and draw a line for himself. I think that in the long run, this was the best decision. I will be there as a mediator when needed, but certainly a cautious, strategic one.