"7:30! Screens off!" I declared.
My son, who was in the middle of watching a basketball video, closed his laptop.
"You need to power it down," I said. "If you just close it, the laptop's still running. Your information is still active. people can hack in while you sleep." Granted, I made some things up. I wanted to make my point.
"But if I power it down, I'll lose information. I'll lose things I was working on."
"Well, you knew that you were shutting off at 7:30. So, you could have saved what you had before the deadline," I said, holding my children to a higher standard than myself. I've flipped down my own laptop tons of times.
"So, if you're in the middle of a job application, you just shut if off and lose all of your information?"
Now I'm wondering why my almost 12 year old is filling out job applications.
"You should complete the application, save it to your computer, in a word doc, or downloaded to your documents folder, and turn off your computer. That way, you're not leaving any cookies or threads from your personal work out there, running."
"Then why do all the other kids at school do it?"
"Son, do you want to be like everybody else or do you want to be smart?"
He held his head down, stared at the floor. "I wanna be smart," he mumbled.
"Good," I said. "Okay. Let's turn our devices off and get ready for bed."
My kids did as they were told. I wanted them to get to bed. I wanted to not have to think about what they needed any more this night. I wanted to get to my own work and fun distractions.
About an hour or so later, I came to a gigantic realization!
I thought I was trying to teach my son a lesson. In truth, I was really just trying to be right. By the end of the argument, my son felt defeated. His head was low. He was mumbling the words he knew I wanted to hear.
I had won. And he had lost.
I felt like absolute shit.
My mother was the household rule maker. My father was the 'This-is-how-you-do-it' guy. When I was turning into a teenager and arguing my points, I would raise counterpoints to my mother's rules. I would point out loopholes in the household law, just like my son was tryin to do. My mother shut that down. Quite frankly, my mother and my father do not know how to be wrong.
And guess what they passed down to me?
My father's way of doing things was always the 'right ' way: how to tie a knot. How to set up a camp. How to pack the car. How to fix a bicycle. How to open a jar of pickles.
Every how-to lesson that he taught us was The Way to do that thing.
It's scary to be wrong. What if your child discovers that they have more power? What if they realize that you're not always right? That there is the possibility - the outside chance - that they are right and you just didn't realize it yet.
That can be scary for a parent. For anybody.
My mother fought for attention her whole life. She grew up in the shadow of an accomplished older brother who received the accolades for his achievements. Even before she set out on what would be a very accomplished career, her opinion was not to be questioned. She defended her reasoning, no matter how flawed, fiercely. No matter what kind of argument - logical or, as sometimes was the case, not - she made sure I saw that she was right. And I, too, admitted my defeat, by repeating the words she wanted me to say.
Since my parents did not know how to be wrong, I learned that feeling of defeat. And I suddenly recalled all the times throughout my life when I chose not to speak up, because I had been taught that my opinion was wrong. It was a feeling that carried into adulthood. I chose the sidelines as opposed to standing up for my ideas. I became more of an observer that a doer. I was taught to accept that I was probably wrong by parents who had to be right.
I was passing on that same lesson of defeat to my son. I was horrified. I was disgusted. And I was grateful that I was able to recognize the pattern I was repeating.
I raced upstairs to my son's room.
"May I come in?"
"Sure," he said. He was lying in bed, staring off. He looked sad.
"I need to apologize to you, son. I... when we were arguing about the computer, you were making a very good point about saving your work. But I needed to be right. So I tried to prove how right I was instead of recognizing that you had a good point. I wanted to teach you, but instead, I ended up needing to defeat you. I was doing something that my parents did to me. And it didn't make me feel good about myself. That's what I was doing to you. And I'm sorry. I am so sorry."
He smiled at me a little. "Thanks for apologizing."
"Son, it's better to speak up for what you believe and be wrong, than to never have spoken up at all. I was wrong."
"You were trying to teach me something, Dad. But you do the same thing. I've seen you. So, you can't teach something and then do it yourself. That makes you a hypocrite."
"That's a great word. Where did you learn that word?"
"I read it in a book."
"So, you do read?"
"Lots. Whattaya think - all I do is watch videos?" He smiled that smile, knowing that he put anoher one past me.
I was wrong again. I have never been so happy to be so wrong.
Our children will grow up and learn things that I never did. My sons will know things about the world I won't. Their world will be different and they will be experts in that world while I will be an observer. I will always have common sense lessons to pass on, but when it comes to the details - and especially to my hypocritical do as I say not as I do lessons, my sons will, hopefully, point out the flaw in my ethics.
We want to be teachers to our kids. The best teaching is modeling, teaching by doing, and passing on the practice. I like to think that we all want to be better parents to our kids. One of the best ways to do that, I believe, is to admit our faults whenever possible.
If I had left things as they were, my son would have gone to bed with a defeated, deflated feeling. he would have woken up with that feeling. And I would have totally succeeded in chipping away at his self-esteem.
By apologizing to my son and admitting my error, his confidence was rescued from being crushed underneath my own feet. I helped to build his self-esteem and in so doing, I helped to prepare him for the next obstacle in his life. Because confidence, and the right attitude, is everything.
"Dad, can I ask you a question?" my son asks.
"What's a tampon?"
I'm speeding down the Taconic State Parkway like many insane sports dads, focused on getting my son to his 6th grade basketball tournament game on time. We have a tendency to leave late for everything. Even after I give my son a half hour departure warning... then a 20, 10, and 5 minute departure update warning, at go time, he's still on the couch, playing on his tablet, in bare feet and shorts. And, of course, I feel responsible, like it's my fault that I allowed him to be late.
After a flurry of shouts and rushing, we're in the car, leaving two minutes later than I wanted to leave. Two minutes. And now I'm staring at the GPS like a madman, seeing if I can bring that arrival time down to the ideal time as suggested by our coach.
Like I said, insane.
My son's recovered from the push to leave. He turns those emotional corners quickly. I'm still obsessed with the GPS arrival time. He's watching the world go past, outside his window when he asks the question above.
"You don't need to know about that right now," I say, as I try to figure out if I should take the Taconic to the Bronx River or continue onto the Sprain Brook.
I think I've answered his question adequately. But then my altruist parental mind takes over. He's asking the question, so he knows something about it. If he doesn't get the answer from me, he'll ask someone else. And that someone else might not offer as responsible an answer as I hope to.
"Why do you want to know?" I ask.
"When I was at summer camp, someone dared me to ask a girl what a period was."
I veer into the next lane, correct myself, and refocus.
"Did you ask the girl?"
"No!" he exclaims, like how dare I even question that. "But I think I know what a tampon is. Because when the kid asked me to ask about a girl's period, I knew what that was... it's like when a girl bleeds out of her... privates." He whispers the word 'privates' to me.
He doesn't ask if he's right, he just puts it out there. There's a confidence there that I admire.
"That's more or less what its purpose is," I say, feeling totally inadequate. "I mean, the purpose of a tampon is to absorb the blood that comes out. Like a huge bandaid."
'Huge' is the wrong word.
"Like a plug." Even a worse word choice. But it's been said and can't be unsaid.
"Oh," he says, getting his own image and I'm certain I'm failing miserably at this. "Dad, why does a girl bleed out of her privates?"
And now we're into it, the birds and the bees talk. Except he's less than a month away from twelve. Twelve! I thought this talk didn't happen until Fifteen or sixteen. Another example of how unprepared I really am as a parent. But here we are, and I'm about to explain how a girl's menstrual cycle works while driving 70 miles per hour down a New York State parkway.
"Each month a young woman's body prepares to make a baby. The body builds a... home inside the young woman, a place where the baby can be made and grow."
"And that happens every month?" he asks.
"So, why does it bleed?"
"Well, if a baby is not made, all the stuff that was made for the baby needs to get... tossed out. Or it goes bad if it's not used. So the body flushes it out. And that is what bleeds out."
"Does it hurt?" he asks. "It must hurt."
"It's very uncomfortable. They get cramps and it makes them very... moody."
"Oh." He goes quiet for a second. "Do they get a period if they're pregnant?"
"No," I say. "Once a girl gets pregnant..., Look, you're playing a good team today. This is the semi-finals. If you win, you'll be playing in the championships!"
"Don't change the subject, Dad. If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay. I can youtube it."
"Okay, so once a young woman gets pregnant, everything that her body made to make the baby gets used. So it's needed and the body keeps it. So nothing gets thrown out. You understand? The body keeps it all. And... the human body is an amazing thing. It's very complicated." I pause, check the GPS. "We're almost there. Can you tell me where to turn?"
"Up ahead, 0.6 miles, you're going to make a right."
"So, does a girl still bleed when she's pregnant?"
"Woman. A woman does not. Her body makes the baby. Then the baby comes out."
I do not dare get into all the details of the miracle of childbirth, and how many women and couples have suffered through miscarriages or one failed attempt after another to have a baby; I dare not mention the millions of young women who do get pregnant when they don't want to. I do not dare get into that with my 11 year old son. I keep the conversation as simple as possible. I am certain that I am failing in my explanation. I am worried as hell that I'm putting images in his head that he will obsess over. I am worried that he will be thinking about periods and pregnancy instead of remembering how to run the motion offense or know his position on defense. In about twenty minutes he's going to be standing on a basketball court and I envision him standing in the low-post, rebounds bouncing off his head as he scans the crowd for young women who might, at that very moment, be having their period. Because he would. He would wonder what that looks like and how to identify it.
"Dad, how do babies get made?"
"Oh, look! We're here!"
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a writer and an educator. Most importantly, I am a father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and written screenplays, articles, and this blog. I write about kids in crisis. I write about parents trying to figure it all out. I write about learning from failure and the resulting successes.