How My Son Became My Dad Coach
Being a dad can really test your tolerance, patience and your capacity as a negotiator.
My situation is somewhat unique as my wife Chris and I had Tom when I was 28 and our little miracle, Will, turned up when I was 40. As I sometimes quip, our middle child is called Gap.
Tom will be 21 in a couple of months. Until recently he had spent 18 months living apart from us while we lived in Brisbane. This situation left Tom as the resident landlord of our home of 18 years, sharing with two other young blokes. So as Will went about making new friends in Brisbane, Tom was finding out where the water meter and safety switches were located and just how long it takes to go food shopping.
Now back living together in Melbourne, I have a live-in ‘Dad Coach’ who guides me in my fathering of Will while simultaneously sharing some of the darker moments in my role as father during Tom’s early years. One of these was when he was an early teen and I accused him of stacking the deck in a Yu-Gi-Oh! card game – I remember that day and now I know I had a shocker.
Tom was about 13 when the penny dropped; from then on, I decided I should speak to him as a person, not as a kid. This fundamentally meant I would respect his opinion.
The disturbing thing is, I started to do this with Will when he was about four! Maybe it’s because Will, now eight, is an extrovert, has an excellent memory and is a bit of a snake when it comes to negotiating (maybe I respect this in him). Anyway, the resultant difference is that where I may have told Tom “because I said so…”, that’s an unacceptable approach with Will.
As a result, Will is more mentally draining, but because we have reasoned rather than dictatorial outcomes there are less conflicts, which probably means less dark moments for Will than Tom experienced.
Probably a big part this improvement is becoming wiser as a person and being more grown-up. None of us attend fathering classes and so we need to learn on the job. I don’t recall having conversations about fathering with other dads when Tom was growing up, but I certainly see now that I could have performed better and would have benefited from feedback.
This type of reflection came up recently when we were with friends who have a couple of young boys and I was asked, ‘who is your favourite son?’ I was stumped as I had never been asked that before and had never thought about. My friend complimented me because I must therefore not have a favourite, but I think she was premature because I feel I’ve had two goes at being a dad, not one.
The poignant part of this conversation, though, was when Chris indicated that the reason for her choice of favourite was because of how I fathered Tom in his early years – which instigated a deeper reflection of what it means to be a good dad.
Will is more mentally draining, but because we have reasoned rather than dictatorial outcomes there are less conflicts, which probably means less dark moments for Will than Tom had.
I lost my Mum when I was 16 so I didn’t have her around when I became a dad, but my father was always supportive of me and there to give me advice. That said, I rarely saw the need to ask as I thought I was doing OK. Moreover, we were living in Sydney, away from my family, so it was our friends and the ‘mothers’-group’ dads who were my main points of reference when it came to fathering. The perils of fathering were not often discussed and, if so, in a light-hearted way because we were all doing our best and there was no apparent need for any intervention.
I am not saying I went from monster-father to ‘father of the year’. I think the main change for me has been my capacity and willingness to avoid escalating an issue such that it leads to yelling, losing my cool and, in the case of Tom, handing out the occasional smack – this technique has been removed from my arsenal.
When we were away on holidays over Christmas we were having a chat and I asked Will, now eight, if he’d liked to do debating. Will said, “what’s debating?” and almost in unison, Chris and I said, “what you do every day!” Anyhow, we decided to have a game of debating, with Chris as the adjudicator and Will having the choice of affirmative or negative for each topic, which included: “pirates are better than knights”; and “Brisbane is a better place to live than Melbourne” (we were just about to move south). I had to work hard to stay ahead but Will was able to see there are two ways to see the same story – which is healthy.
There are other things that I still need to work on as a father, such as my willingness to create fun opportunities with my sons. We can all become engrossed in our personal lives; maybe dealing with issues with our partner or wife, or dealing with financial pressures or extended-family turmoil. Fathering cannot just be about debating and negotiating to avoid conflict – fathering needs to be fun.
So, while I feel I have improved in my second attempt at being a father – I know what to do to support Will’s development as a person – I’m also aware why I need to work harder to build a stronger relationship with Tom, who still needs a father even though he’s become my Dad Coach.