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Do What You Do and Not What I Say

The author and his son negotiate the terms of their relationship.


“Hey!” I yell to my 12-year-old. “RIDE STRAIGHT!”

He wobbles across the width of the bike lane, bored with the task of merely making his way to our destination while I huff and puff from the last minor incline. Traffic is steady, and passing cars repeatedly swerve into the opposite lane to avoid him.

Every few feet of the not-very-long bike ride from the house to the grocery store, he’s been bouncing off curbs, swerving around manhole covers, jumping potholes or bunny-hopping storm drains.

“Cars aren’t watching out for you. You have to watch out for them.”

“Sorry, Dad,” he says with no trace of remorse, accepting my admonishment and then speeding ahead, not the least bit bothered by my obvious frustration.

Who taught him to ride a bike like that? The kid’s gonna get killed if he keeps that up.

The truth is, my 12-year-old boy knows how to ride a bike much better than I do. He’s ridden farther, faster, and harder than I ever have. He’s ridden long-distance routes with his mother, and he’s ridden up and down and around muddy foothills with a recreational mountain bike team. He has better balance and stamina than I do. He has better hearing, vision and confidence than I do. He rides 2 miles to school and back nearly every day, up and down a not-insubstantial hill. My son is not a daredevil. He is, instead, merely naturally confident.

When he was young, he liked to fry eggs. At 4, my little towhead would stand on his stool next to the stove. He would crack eggs on the side of the cast-iron pan and pry them open with his thumbs, hoping the hot butter didn’t splash back toward him as the egg and a bit of shell splooshed into the pan. After a few minutes, a few questions and lots of commentary, he’d attempt to flip the eggs with the stainless-steel spatula. I’d stand next to him, sipping coffee, chatting amiably, keeping a close eye and a free hand ready, hoping to minimize the risk of burns and trying to help him contain the mess. Cracked eggs would often end up spilled under the pan instead of into it. Flipped eggs could meet the same fate or find the floor instead. It was all in good fun, though. He was so little and eager and agreeable. The only thing I didn’t want to do was make him anxious or afraid. That would come later.

I cannot ride near him now without feeling anxious. I suppose riding with him has always been this way since he first learned at 5. I’m just surprised I still feel the way I do. I thought it would pass now that he’s so capable. It hasn’t.

The other day we rode down the hill from his mother’s house where we’d stopped so he could pick up his violin to busk downtown. He plays his violin on the street corners of our town. After school and on weekends since the age of 10 his mother has let him ride, on his own, the half-mile from her house to the downtown shopping district with a violin strapped to his back. One Christmas Eve he dressed up as an elf and made $60 in 15 minutes. In the rain.

He’s a cute kid. Not quite as cute at lightly pimpled 12 as he was at 10 in an elf suit, but his playing is better now. When the two of us make it to the bottom of the hill, I ask where he’s going to set up, and he points to a spot across the street in front of an ornate Victorian building. We’re standing next to the bike rack, getting ready to part ways, when I notice he doesn’t have his lock.

“Dude, where’s your lock?”

He’d just gotten a new, almost fancy bike for Christmas. Why didn’t he have the cable lock wrapped around his seatpost where it was supposed to be?

“Oh, yeah. Sorry, Dad.”

Instead of leaving them in the rack, we walk our bikes across the street to his favorite spot. It’s shady there, cold without the sun on a Tuesday mid-afternoon in March. Not many people are out. I want to tell him he should set up somewhere else, or that maybe he should wait until Saturday when more people would be out. And if he does insist on busking, I want to tell him that he should use the money he was going to make to buy a lock. I also want to tell him he needs to be more careful, that people aren’t bad, necessarily, but they’re stupid, or if not stupid, then distracted, and anyway, his bike was expensive, and maybe be careful talking to certain strangers, and...

For the past few years I’ve been sleeping in more when my kids are with me. I have a daughter too. She’s 9. My ex and I each take the kids half the week. I can sleep in now because the kids feed themselves breakfast. They even prefer it. They’ll get up, my son fries eggs while my daughter makes toast, and the two of them read their books and eat breakfast slowly. Maybe afterward they’ll do something amazing like play with LEGOs together for an hour without bickering. I get up later and find them constructing spaceships while an audiobook they’ve listened to 5 times already plays in the background. I check that all is good, and it is. I make my way to the kitchen to start some coffee, thinking proudly of my resourceful and good-natured kids.

On the mornings where instead we all rush to get ready for school and out the door, and I ask my son to make some eggs while I get lunches ready or help my daughter with her latest wardrobe crisis, the scene is less idyllic. On those mornings I might make sandwiches a foot away from him while he cracks eggs into a bowl to scramble. I’m horrified by how much raw egg he spills and then smears across the counter, the floor, and the stovetop. I’m annoyed when he uses the stick of butter to grease the hot pan, which I also do, and then places the melted, unwrapped end not on a little plate as I do but right back down on the counter, maybe right in the smear of raw egg.

“Put some spinach in the pan with the eggs, buddy,” I say. And then baby spinach is pulled out of the fridge and onto the raw-egg–smeared counter, which is opposite the stove. Baby spinach leaves spill onto the counter, then the floor, and again the stovetop as he carries a loose handful across to the pan.

It’s often at this point that I’ll dismiss him and finish making breakfast on my own, no longer able to bite my tongue and stand by silently witnessing the pandemonium. Other times I’m worse, chastising him for each misstep, each gaffe.

“Dude, get a plate.” “In the pan, kid, eggs go in the pan.” “You can’t just put the dirty spatula down there!” “You’re burning them, dude, you can’t read and cook. Put the book away. Aargh, I’ll do it. Go pack your bag.”

I think about this after leaving him to busk. All of my close-watching, nagging corrections and concerns aren’t really helping him figure things out. In fact, I think he’s more likely to make a mess or ride like an idiot when I’m with him. I think my anxiety makes him more...anxious.

I leave him alone to busk and head to the café to work. An hour later he comes inside to meet me, carrying a wrapped present. He’d bought it for his sister — her birthday was the next day — with the money he’d made busking.

“It’s pretty nice out,” he says. “I think I might go back and make some money for myself this time.”

As a dad, I want to make things go right for my son the first time. But if I’m gonna help him be the strong, independent, capable person I want him to be, that he wants to be, I need to rein in my tendency to point out all the ways he might mess up. Once my son started to bike more often on his own, he didn’t get hurt or lost. He didn’t start hanging out with the kids who smoked near the broken-down dock. In fact, he only became more responsible as he grew more independent.

I need to do precisely what my son has silently been telling me he wants me to do. I need to let him go, on his own, out into the world. I need to let him try.

This is what I’ve come to understand: I’m afraid of the larger world that will envelop my growing son, but he can’t wait to meet it. I know I’m not entirely wrong to fear all the dangers, and he’s not wrong to be excited about the opportunities. It’s my job as a parent to keep warning him about life’s hazards, and it’s even my job sometimes to let him know when I think he’s doing things the wrong way. Luckily, my son keeps reminding me without ever actually saying it that we succeed by being open, and we learn by making mistakes. Without trying to, he’s teaching me how to raise him. The real question is not so much if he’ll listen to what I have to say, but if I’ll be willing to really hear him.

Will O’Donnell is a father of two and lives in Port Townsend.

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