New York Post: All the mistakes I made raising two rebellious boys
(This originally appeared June 16, 2018, in the New York Post)
I hate Father’s Day. I don’t mind calling my father and wishing him a good one. But as a dad to two rebellious boys (just like my old man), the annual faux holiday and funny cards from my wife stir uneasy memories of failure, chaos and remorse, instead of nostalgia and pride.
Not that I don’t love and admire my kids like crazy. I just never learned to control them. Couldn’t force them to wear helmets when they began skateboarding. Couldn’t make them appreciate school or prevent them from cutting classes. Couldn’t keep their pot out of the house when they started smoking as teens. Couldn’t stop their graffiti spraying, their late-night parties, their disdain for authority and convention and compliance.
The list of acceptable dad roles includes coach, mentor, drill sergeant, enforcer, disciplinarian, rabbi . . . But what if you’re none of these?
I tried to do the right things, as did my wife. We tried to force our willful boys to become the obedient young men we thought they could/should be. Part of the problem was that we largely adopted our parents’ style of governing — as in: not too much.
Home by dinner had been the primary rule in our respective 1970s suburban households. That and go to church and don’t get kidnapped. As newbie parents, my wife and I planned to give our kids the same independence we’d had. We built a virtual fence around them and let them flap within the confines of the chicken ranch, free to make their own free-range decisions. You could say we rejected helicopter parenting long before that was a thing.
Then came high school. Our kids’ antics escalated, and we paid the price: phone calls from teachers, counselors, security guards and cops. We found bags of weed in sock drawers, bowls and rolling papers in backpacks, a bong behind the furnace.
We’d intentionally coached our boys to be independent and adventurous and had no choice but to accept the results. It was terrifying at times.
“Is this Mr. Thompson?” a Seattle police officer asked, when I picked up the phone at 2 a.m.
“What’s wrong? Is he hurt?” I barked, bracing myself for every parent’s nightmare.
He (my youngest) wasn’t hurt, just drunk and mouthy and busted for spraying graffiti with friends in an abandoned school.
I kept shifting tactics, trying to find a balance between keeping them compliant and safe, being an enforcer, but also keeping them close, keeping the lines of communication open.
When the troubles intensified, I questioned all of my parenting decisions.
We weren’t pushovers. We lectured and punished, assigned chores and set curfews, insisted on family dinners and talked and talked and talked to them. But somewhere during our kids’ mid-teens, we lost the upper hand, if we’d ever had it at all.
When the troubles intensified, I questioned all of my parenting decisions. Did I give them too long a leash? Should I have fenced them in tighter, clipped their wings? Should I have been tougher — more drill sergeant or tiger dad?
Many parents wrestle with wanting to be their kids’ friend and needing to be the boss. Almost daily my wife and I would ask: Do we pummel them for being who they are? Or keep them raw and a little wild . . . and accept the consequences?
When I posed a version of that question on Facebook recently, the flurry of replies felt familiar and reassuring. No one had a magic formula in the age of legalized marijuana, easy-access opiates, iPhones, YouTube, Xanax, cough syrup and Ambien cocktails. All parents struggle to control their kids’ worst instincts, desperately pivoting from zero tolerance to looking the other way, from communicating to clamping down.
Here’s what I did (and didn’t) learn about raising rebellious boys: zero tolerance — of drinking and smoking, of skateboarding teen nonsense — didn’t work, nor did threats of military school or “scared straight”-style wilderness camp.
Too many rules, punishments and admonitions created a bummer of a family lifestyle and never had the desired effect. Nor did being the bad cop, the disappointed, pissed-off dad.
I strived to be more like my wife: patient and forgiving and sanguine. Compromise, I found, had to be part of the equation.
How did it turn out? They’re 20 and 21 now. One is in college, the other working a full-time job that he loves. They didn’t get A’s or reach the Ivy Leagues, and I’m OK with that now. I have to be. We did our best, we loved them, told them we loved them, held them close and held on for the wild ride that’s finally starting to slow down.
So, as we hit another uncomfortable Father’s Day and I look at the bold and beautiful young men they’ve become, I’m not sure I’d change a thing. That doesn’t mean I need a holiday to celebrate my sloppy slog through fatherhood. Although I admit that even the day I hate can occasionally bring some joy.
Five years ago my wife wrote a gracious Father’s Day card that brought me to tears. In it, she wrote: You are a fantastic father and a fantastic father can doubt himself during hard times. You are breaking these people into civilization, and they are not compliant people. They are challenging, irresponsible, demanding, funny, careless, sweet, helpful, selfish, kind, emotional and sometimes stupid. But mostly, they are loving — because you are loving. Happy Father’s Day. I love you.
Neal Thompson is the author of “Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood” (Ecco), out now.