I have served in the military, worked in lethal environments and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. Nothing has ever scared me as much as meeting my girlfriend’s son Gabriel. We had only been together a few weeks, and conventional wisdom said that meeting him so soon was a bad idea. To me, establishing a relationship only to find that I was not ready to be a parent would be devastating. I was reeling from a divorce and the loss of my career in the Navy. I decided that this fear, like any other, would have to be faced. That is what my parents taught me, and now, four happy years later, it is what I am teaching “The Wee Lad”.
I call him The Wee Lad and he calls me his “Bonus Dad”. Neither his mother nor I have pushed this role on him because we both feel that telling someone what your place in their life can be counterproductive. We agreed that I needed to be a parent and she would be grateful for the help. By no means am I saying my man-splaining skills saved the day. She had the situation well in-hand, but as a couple, if we wanted time together, then we had to work together. Dating a woman with a kid is tough because she has incredible demands on her time.
Diving in with both feet was the best decision that I ever made. I love this kid, and that has made my relationship with his mother stronger. More importantly, I take my role as a father figure seriously. It is so easy to love kids that it makes it hard to do the things that parents need to do. What if that causes a rift? What if he stomps his feet and utters the phrase feared by step-dads everywhere? “You’re not my real dad!” What if it makes him hate me?
I mean, I knew that I loved him, but I wasn’t certain if I loved him enough for both of us if you know what I mean. He is going to hit that point where he moves to establish his own identity and then it becomes a struggle. I do not believe in telling a child what to think, but they do need to be shaped to fit into society in order to reach their own potential. However, finding that line with a child is incredibly difficult. However, I decided that I loved this kid enough to let him hate me if it bettered him as a human being and helped him reach his potential.
The Wee Lad’s biggest struggle has been that he has never had to struggle. The psyche’s defenses need to be honed over time. He had trouble making friends, had issues with women as authority figures and threw temper tantrums whenever he couldn’t control the situation. Not any worse than any other kid his age, but I saw the potential for a bright young man to wind up wasting opportunities. This was the second part of the conversation: I had to tell my girlfriend that I wanted to help, but I had some very different ideas about parenting than she did. I was raised very conservatively. I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies at all until I was seventeen and forgetting to say “sir/ma’am” got me “the stare”.
So, now we have two drastically different people trying to co-parent and figure out how their ideas work together. The key is realizing that complimentary world-views can help The Wee Lad if we make sure to fairly represent each other’s viewpoints. In other words, if he hears Momma and I debating politics, or opinions about issues, we state our cases as perspectives, not as facts. If the issue is parenting related, we do not argue about it in front of him. Period.
In a space of a few weeks that I think was enough time for The Wee Lad and I to develop a relationship, we established “family date night”. A night for the three of us to go out, work on social graces and bond as a family. He had just turned nine, and the waitress made the mistake of bringing him a children’s menu. The very idea!
He got an attitude about it, and when I pointed it out he aimed the attitude at me. This was a pretty typical step in growing up: “What are you gonna do about it?” I don’t think it is hostility, as much as seeking out the line between his rights and my expectations. I always begin with communication, even though reasoning with a child seems impossible. Why? Because he is learning more from my actions than from my words. The same reason that you can’t negotiate with them is the reason that you need to work that much harder to try.
Then comes the “because I said so” moment. I absolutely avoid this whenever possible, but sometimes you simply can’t stand there explaining and negotiating with the child. They fool you by speaking English, but they are rarely telling you what they are trying to say. Especially in tantrum mode. Kids have no concept of hormones or the world past the ends of their noses.
There is a biological reason for this: It is how they stay alive. As a species, we are remarkable in that we accept communal parenting. Kids demand attention and care and act melodramatically to force psychological recognition that they are helpless. Few adults really tell you what they mean. As anyone who loves writing can tell you, words are a terrible medium for our feelings. That goes double when you have only nine years of experience to draw on.
Back at our favorite Sushi restaurant, Hive, in San Diego the back and forth had gotten out of hand. I saw that Mom was angry and embarrassed by his behavior and it seemed he was incapable of keeping his mouth shut. I felt frustrated and got up to go to the restroom. I needed space to think of an appropriate response.
However you discipline your kids, doing it while you are angry creates fear. I was spanked as a kid, I was not abused. I have friends whose parents abused them without laying a finger on them. Which sounds more traumatic and scary? Being spanked for a clearly understood transgression calmly explained, or being suddenly screamed at and grounded? I believe the betrayal of trust and the implication that punishment is arbitrary and irrational is the seat of more developmental issues than spanking. I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, though. As a kid, I was never scared of my father, mother or grandmother and these were the people who disciplined me.
So, I walked away and thought about it. I decided that we were over the line already, but to just get up and leave would present the problem I mentioned above. Not to mention that aside from the occasional use of “the Dad voice” when he talked back to Mom and Grandma I hadn’t really been a part of the disciplinary process and I wasn’t sure how Mom would react. Unfortunately, he gave me a perfect excuse moments later, and I rolled the dice. I looked at Mom and said the unthinkable: “Okay, get up. We are leaving.”
I had rolled the dice on our verbal agreement to back each other up when it came to parenting. Mom seemed surprised, but knew what I was doing right away. He sat there horrified for a moment, suddenly aware that everyone in the restaurant would realize that he had been bad. The same mechanism that made him act out was now being used to correct him. Kids are bent on being liked, because, as I said above, that is key to their survival. They have no power or independence, they rely on adults liking them.
Shame exists for a reason, however, there is a little thing called “proportionality”. You don’t shame your kid on social media or create intentional stigmas on places that they must go. It is the same reason I don’t assign extra schoolwork or chores as punishments. They aren’t punishments. They are part of life that has to be dealt with and attaching negative connotations to them is counterproductive.
We left, with him trying frantically to turn the tide and get control of the situation back by guilting us into stopping at his favorite fast food place or he would be certain to “join a street gang”. I had no idea Del Taco was so committed to the youth of today, but I am glad to hear it all the same. At this point is where Mom taught me a step or three. By continuing the conversation I was playing right into feeding the behavior. It was hard not to laugh because he was adorable, but that was also a bad idea.
Imagine something devastating happened to you and your parent laughed at you. That is the kid’s perspective. It seems silly to us because we have other experiences to draw on, but that was the worst day of his life and seeing me giggling at him would push him away. I kept it under control until we got home, where he went to bed opting not to eat dinner so he would starve to death and teach his mom a lesson. The important thing is that we maneuvered through the situation without giving him back control.
Finally, Mom and I had a moment to chat and I braced for impact. I was pleasantly surprised, however. She was more than supportive because she always had to be the bad guy. Gabe’s father is around, but he visits to play video games and go for ice cream. She needed someone to have her back and was always afraid of ruining our time together. I explained that I was not mad, but I felt that The Wee Lad had gotten out of hand and said that I would have her back regardless because we were a family and no family is without growing pains.
I took instruction from both her and The Wee Lad that evening. She has her degree in psychology and works with kids, so we reviewed my parenting performance and she taught me the concepts I didn’t have the lingo for. What he taught me was much more important, though: Those boundaries have to change, but it is a negotiation with this growing person who will someday need to be a functional adult. Hell, I am barely a functional adult how the hell am I going to teach it to someone?!
Through feedback. I paid attention to the subtext. The whole issue arose because he got a children’s menu and he didn’t want to be thought of as a “baby”. I get that. However, his response was disproportionate and had to be dealt with. As a Dad, I will not disengage and give him the last word when he is being recalcitrant. I will, however, review the situation and think about what he was trying to tell me: He needs some control over his own life. Therefore, we changed some things to give him more control but explained that when he misbehaves, he loses that privilege. This is a microcosm of our society: You compromise with the people around you, or you lose their concessions to you. They may walk away from a friendship, fire you or put you in jail, but your control of your life is completely dependent on your ability to behave within societal norms.
The bad news is, in my opinion, that is earned and maintained through diligence and we are all subject to the rule of “One ‘Oh, shit.’ Wipes out 20 ‘Thatta boys’.” After a stellar Navy career, I got a DUI, and my career in the Navy was done. A victim of bad timing, it lowered my evaluation score severely at a time when the Navy was down-sizing. The fairness could be debated but, in the end, I reacted to a very hard time in life destructively and I have no one to blame for my actions except myself. This is a lesson that I want Gabe to learn young and to learn well, as oppressive as it sounds.
Why? Because that is what the world will expect of him. I also make sure that he knows that one day he will shape the world and when that liberating day comes, it will come with responsibility for himself and to the world around him. One of my favorite poems sums up the beauty and tragedy of freedom:
A Man says to the Universe “I exist.”
To which, the Universe replied, “That creates no great sense of responsibility within me.”
Almost a year after the issue, wonders have been worked and Mom and Grandma are always reminding me what a difference I have made in his life. It’s flattering and humbling because, though I don’t want to push parenting on anyone, I don’t think there is anything more important that we can do with our lives. Gabe will shape tomorrow, and he will shape it based on what his Mom, Dad and I impart to him. I need to shape a mind without brainwashing him, and that means that being a parent is an active process. All the time, every day, Gabe is on my mind. I even quit a very lucrative job because I felt that The Wee Lad needed some focused attention. Despite my misgivings, I guess I am a pretty good “Bonus Dad”, and that is only because I know how little I know and I look to him to teach me what he needs. So, I hope this series of articles helps some of you dealing with these issues, but please remember that I am not a child development specialist. This is advice intended to spur your own ideas, so take it with a grain of salt and then season to taste.