A couple of months ago, I made my oldest son cry. Not just a few tears, but full on balling as if he’d been told his mom had died. It started in the car after I picked him up from tennis practice. I arrived a little early so I could watch, and let’s just say I expected more from him. I found myself getting frustrated with his effort and was convinced he wasn’t trying his hardest, not even close.
As we walked back to the car I peppered him with questions. Why wasn’t he running faster, swinging harder, more focused? I guess I wasn’t satisfied with his answers because I kept at it once we got in the car. Eventually I snapped, my frustration boiling over into anger, and I started saying all kinds of things he didn’t deserve. The next thing I knew he was crying harder than I’d ever seen him cry before.
I rarely yell at my sons. They’re both great kids, well behaved and smart. So I can only imagine my anger must have caught my son totally off guard, like I was no longer his loving dad that he was always used to and had suddenly become some kind of monster.
Seeing him cry like that filled me with shame, and that evening I did a lot of soul searching. I wanted to understand why I’d gotten so angry with him, and why I’d said the things I did. The best I could come up with was that I see so much of myself in him, that in that moment, it was as if I wasn’t yelling at my son, but at myself.
Maybe that sounds crazy, or like some lame excuse, but hear me out. I have two boys, three years apart, just like me and my own brother, who is three years younger than me. People have been saying my oldest looks exactly like me since he was a baby, and as he gets older, the resemblance only seems to grow stronger. After all, he’s my son. But it doesn’t stop there. He reminds me so much of me in every way, while my youngest reminds me of my little brother in many ways. Everything from their personalities, to their mannerisms, and even the same bad habits I used to have as a kid, which is crazy since I broke those bad habits long before my boys were born. Like the way I used to bite my straws, or pick at my nails, and how growing up I was more moody and selfish versus my little brother who was always the sweeter and more affectionate one between us. It’s the same dynamic for my boys now, and sometimes I see so many similarities that I’ve told people it’s almost like I can see their futures.
My point is that maybe watching my son play tennis gave me flashbacks of my own lack of effort in everything I did when I was his age, whether it was tennis, or piano, or school work, or just about anything. Maybe I wanted to knock some sense into him so he wouldn’t make the same mistakes I did, so he wouldn’t waste what I saw as the golden opportunity before him and instead take full advantage of his youth and reach his full potential. Or maybe I was just being a jerk. I don’t know.
The truth is, I have no idea how to be a good father. Again, not an excuse, but my father died when I was nine and my brother was six. It was the most significant thing that happened to me growing up and probably shaped me as a person more than anything else. It had been less than four years since we immigrated from Korea. We had very little money, my mother couldn’t speak English, had never held a job, and we knew very few people in this country. Needless to say, for the next several years we went through some very hard times.
In case you’ve never seen it, there’s this famous meme showing how history works in cycles. It says hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, ending with weak men create hard times.
I’m not saying I’m a strong man, but I’m confident that surviving my difficult childhood definitely made me stronger. I don’t need a meme to tell me that. I’ve always known it.
And so I worry about my kids having it too easy. That isn’t to say that we’re wealthy, not by a long shot, but the fact is my boys have never had to worry about any of the things I had to constantly worry about as a kid. They’ve never had to be afraid that we don’t have enough money to pay the bills, or embarrassed about the kind of car we drive, or the clothes they wear. As far as I’m concerned, they live a life that is care free and free of worry. But I worry. I worry about their future, about them having it too easy now and paying the consequences later.
But it’s not like I want them to have to struggle the way I did, to have to be afraid the way I was, or always feel like they have to have a chip on their shoulder. What I do want is for them to be better than me, to be stronger than me, to not worry all the time the way I do. So that night I decided I would never yell at my sons like that ever again, at least not unless they deserve it. Instead I will focus on loving them, making them feel safe, letting them know I’m always here to help and guide them when needed, to teach them what I can, while giving them as many great memories and opportunities as possible, and remembering that they’re not me, or my brother, but their own selves.