undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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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.

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The NFL, Bullying, and our Sons

incognito-martin-cleelandAs a kid who was bullied, there’s something very powerful about the notion of bearing witness.

In elementary school, I was the kid who was forced to stand against the wall in a severe version of parochial school dodge ball, while balls hummed toward my face and groin. I was also the kid who got excluded or called names or even threatened at times. Throughout all of it, I held a wish for someone to bear witness to what was happening. I wanted someone to see it, acknowledge it was wrong, and then hold the bullies accountable for their actions.  There is great power in public shame, and I thought that if my pursuers could be called out and held accountable, then all would be okay. Even if this didn’t happen, the fantasy was enough to sustain me through my difficult grade school years.

Although that was my wish, I never helped make it happen. I never sought out anyone to see what was going on. I don’t know what my thought process was as a 9-year-old, but I’m sure the stigma against snitching had something to do with it. Even at that young age, I’m sure I was fed the notion that boys who seek out help can’t fight their own battles. So, I kept quiet, and had balls hurled at me or got my head slammed into a locker.

This is what’s so infuriating for me as a father about the NFL conduct case between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Incognito and Martin were teammates on the Miami Dolphins until Martin left the team, citing that Incognito harassed him with racial slurs and threats of violence.

The Dolphins eventually suspended Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team, but only after a media backlash against Martin for voicing his concern in the first place. Some NFL players have belittled Martin, saying that hazing is common in the NFL and that Martin just couldn’t handle himself. Former NFL members and sports commentators have made similar statements, citing an NFL “culture” that inducts rookies with hazing, intent on toughening up the weaker players and building bonds between teammates.

I think the backlash really hit me during the “Barbershop” segment on Michel Martin’s NPR show “Tell Me More”. This segment features a group of predominantly African-American men who comment on social and political news. One commentator, Jimi Izrael, stated that Martins should have “manned up” and beaten up Incognito instead of “running to the principal’s office”.  He insisted you “cannot bully a grown man”, suggesting the term was misapplied to this case. Dissenting voices were featured in the segment regarding NFL management’s role, wondering whether they prompted the hazing. However, at no point during the rest of the Barbershop segment, was the statement that Martin should have manned-up addressed head on.

I should note that I heard most of this news coverage on the radio, and did not know Richie Incognito’s race. Throughout most of the coverage, I had assumed that Incognito was African American. In spite of Incognito’s racial slurs against Martin, I had not heard any outrage about the racism inherent in his harassment. Therefore, I assumed it was the case of one Black player harassing another, and so when I learned that not only was Incognito being excused for his bullying, but also for his racist slurs, I was dumbfounded.

I see this as a failure of witness. Those who have been treated terribly by others understand the need for someone to recognize what’s going on and to help us speak up against it. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a victim is for others to see what’s happening and blame the victim and/or support the behaviors of the aggressor. It took guts for Martin to give voice to what was happening with his teammate, but he was met with ridicule. Although the NFL suspended Incognito, the social backlash against Martin did far more damage to his career than to Incognito’s. Not only did he leave the dolphins, but was cursed with the stigma of being a snitch and cry-baby, alienating him among both teammates and fans.

There are many who say that the NFL honors toughness in its players, and therefore anyone earning himself a 6- to 7-figure salary for playing should shut up and take it. But football is a sport that’s viewed by kids who look up to its players. Behaviors of NFL players trickle down to American kids who glorify and adopt the mannerisms of their idols. This conduct in the NFL teaches kids that if they want to play like the big kids, they have to shut up and take it. They have to put their faith in other boys who might terrorize and bully them, because it’s all a part of playing the game. If the NFL is to continue being a hallmark of American culture, then it needs to reflect on the social modeling it provides to kids.

Some commentators have stated that this case is simply a product of NFL “culture”, stating that hazing of rookie players is a means to toughening up players and acculturating them to life in the NFL. The sentiment suggests that players’ behaviors are therefore beyond reproach because they’re couched within a specific (sub)culture. This rationale is weak. Would we apply this argument to other institutions or groups within the United States? Would we say that American business prides men’s work over and above women’s and, therefore, women should make less money than men because of the “culture” of corporate America?  Would we say that it’s part of urban life for Latino men to kill other Latino men in gang warfare and, therefore, it should be dismissed as “cultural”? When injustice is done to others, we as a society need to bear witness and insist upon equity and safety.

As my son goes off into the world, I cannot be at his side 24/7. If I could, I would be able to help safeguard him and lead him toward sticking up for himself and seeking help when needed. Because I can’t be with him, it’s up to me as a parent to teach him to identify when injustice is happening and what he can do about it, whether sticking up for himself or seeking out help. I entrust other adults to do the same, and to protect the rights of those who seek them out for help. But in spite of what his dad says, if my son sees that others, even adults, get punished for seeking out help in situations that seem insurmountable, what’s the likelihood of him getting the help he needs?

Daily Show “The Wrongest Yard”