explorations of mindful fatherhood


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.


Rhymes with Mouche Bag

86518493_XSOkay, so I borrowed this phrase from an Entertainment Weekly bulls eye, but it always comes to mind when I think about my neighbor.  I’ve been both lauded and lambasted for being critical of my neighbors’ landscaping habits (see some biting responses to my driveway post). But I feel the need to comment once more.

To remind some, I live next door to a line of mini-mansions, whose square footage is about four times that of my family’s tiny cape home.  So, whereas I mow my own lawn and shovel my own snow, I’m apparently the only person on the block who does.  At first, something about this crept under my skin, and my old Midwestern work-ethic shouted from the back of my brain that these people were lazy.  However, that particular voice has subsided.  I feel like I do my own thing and they do theirs.

But I’m still stuck on my immediate neighbor.  Let me set the stage with one particular story.  At a barbecue my family hosted, this neighbor noted that I had torn out some bamboo.  I told him that the bamboo (planted by the previous owner) annoyed me, because it wasn’t indigenous and kept creeping into my lawn and the forest behind my home, so I removed it.  He said, “I like bamboo. I’ve been thinking of getting some.”  The next week, while mowing my lawn, I noticed 5-6 baby bamboo trees planted between his property line and mine, on my side of the fence!  I asked him about it, and he said he remembered talking to me about bamboo, and that I had agreed he could plant some.  I reminded him that wasn’t the case, but said that so long as it was clumping bamboo, he could leave it.  I said that in the future, he needed to discuss things with me before coming onto my property.

A month later, he was there again, planting something else.  I walked out and confronted him, and he acted all confused.  Finally, we came up with a decision about shrubs, and things seem to have settled down along that property line, although there is a dispute over where his property ends and mine begins.

sarahI’ve tried to let that go.  It’s over.  But I’ve still been fixated on the guy.  Here’s the other interesting thing about him: I’ve nicknamed him Lady Winchester.  Sarah Winchester was the 19th century heiress to the Winchester gun manufacturing fortune, who owned a mansion in San Jose, CA.  Mrs. Winchester constantly built upon her house with never-ending projects.  You can tour the home today and still find unfinished rooms in mid-construction, doors that open to nowhere, and stairs that end at the ceiling.

Our neighbor is constantly adding or changing things to his landscape and his home.  Since this past June, he has ripped out a huge tree and planted a smaller one right next to it, removed all his old brown mulch to replace it with new black mulch, installed a full bathroom in their basement, put in two full generators in the back, and now has a fleet of guys reconstructing the entryway to his house.  I am not exaggerating when I report that 6 days of the week there is a construction truck, landscape vehicle, or service professional at his door, every week, for the past 6 months.  My wife will often ask when I come home, “Did you see what Lady Winchester is up to?”

But why I am writing about my seemingly crazy neighbor on a fatherhood blog?  Because there’s something about his erratic and presumptive manner that makes me feel protective.  It makes sense why the land boundary pursuit would set my daddy-dog hackles on end at the sight of an odd man lurking at the edges of my property.  However, his work on his house seems to disturb me as well.   When I think about it rationally, I say to myself that it’s his house and his money and he can do what he’d like.  However, this rational approach doesn’t seem to quell the uneasiness I feel about the whole thing.  I think it’s because his erratic house work makes me wonder if he’s stable. And his boldness to plant things on my property makes me think he doesn’t care much about the privacy or preferences of others. Combined, these two qualities make me concerned that my family lives so close to someone who could be rather unstable, and that protective gene in my daddy-DNA fires up whenever I see another construction truck on the block.

Speaking of unstable, let’s we write a few more words about the historic Lady Winchester, since her story has helped me as I grapple with my not-so-neighborly feelings.  Mrs. Sarah Winchester believed that she and her family were haunted by spirits.  A medium informed Mrs. Winchester that the spirits were victims of the Winchester gun legacy: Native Americans, Civil War casualties, and others killed by her family’s guns.  She was told that if she moved West and constructed a home for the spirits, she would be safe and no harm would come to her.  Therefore, Mrs. Winchester perpetually worked on her home to quell the spirits of the Winchester family victims.  She constantly built additions, tore out and re-constructed rooms, and added odd projects with no seeming purpose.  All of this was done to quell her demons and keep her family guilt at bay.

When I think about my own Lady Winchester with this back-story in mind, it quells some of my own loathing and suspiciousness.  To constantly change one’s house (whether one is haunted by ethereal spirits or not), is certainly indicative of some deep dissatisfaction.  I’ve always believed that home is the one place in the world where we should be able to let our guard down.  The place where we feel that everything is settled; where everything is all right.  To find fault with your home time and again, and to disrupt your family’s daily life and routine for constant projects must be a sign of some deep uneasiness; a sign that things never feel quite right.  My neighbor must be looking for some answer, some deeper satisfaction that will make him feel like everything is right again.  Obviously he doesn’t believe that things are good enough at home.  Perhaps he thinks things need to get better or bigger or fancier.   Whatever he’s looking for, perhaps he thinks that some particular project will make him feel like his life is right again and that he can relax and put his guard down.

My neighbor likely has his own demons to appease, and at times it helps me take this compassionate approach.  I’ll still stand my guard, since I can’t turn off that protective family gene.  But eventually, I hope my neighbor finds some solace and isn’t tormented for the rest of his days, like old Sarah Winchester.