I was at a co-worker’s house. His name was Dave, and we’d worked together for a couple years now. He was about 20 years older than me, and his oldest son was in his teens while my oldest was 9. Most of our friendship had revolved around bitching about our sons. We talked about how lazy they can be, and how their number one priority was to play video games and bitch about not being able to play video games. He often gave me advice on how I can help my son now, in ways that he wished he’d done with his son when he was 9.
There were several of our co-workers in the backyard of Dave’s house. It was a work party, and most of the time we’d been there, I’d watched Dave’s son help clean up after guests. He was a slender young man, 15 years old, with dark hair and glasses. He told awkward jokes and tried to fit in like any teen would when surrounded by adults by saying things like, “When I was a kid…” (And then everyone half rolls their eyes and thinks, “You are a kid.”) But for the most part, he was kind, well-behaved, and all-around respectable.
In fact, I was quite impressed by the way he went out of his way to help with my three small children. He showed my son some games on the TV to keep him entertained. He introduced my middle daughter to their little dog, and he helped keep my 2-year-old out of their garden.
About an hour into the party, I leaned across the patio table to Dave and said, “Your son isn’t half as bad as you let on.”
I smiled at him, and Dave said, “Yeah…you’re right. He’s a good kid.” He glowed with a sense of pride (and a little alcohol), like it took an outside observer noticing his son’s good behavior for him to realize that his son was, in fact, pretty remarkable.
And as Dave and I spoke about his son and some of the good things he does (rather than bitching about his irritating traits — traits all children have), I thought about my own kids and wondered what they were up to that I wasn’t noticing.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s good to bitch about your kids. In fact, it’s good to bitch about parenting and marriage in general. I bitch about late nights and early mornings. I bitch about our budget, and bath time, and boogers. I’m an all-star. There is something very therapeutic about venting when it comes to handling the stress that comes with raising a family. But I’m as guilty as the next parent when it comes to bitching too much — particularly when it comes to my oldest son.
I complain a lot about him. I talk about how frustrating it is to get him up in the morning. I talk about how difficult it is to get him to eat anything other than mac and cheese, and how I have to literally drag him away from the iPad each day and force him to do something productive.
But the fact is, if I really think about it, on the whole, he’s a pretty darn good kid. He doesn’t use bad language. He argues with me about his homework, but he gets it done. He enjoys reading and soccer and other productive activities. He’s never gotten in trouble at school. He gets good grades and plays with good kids. He is respectful around others. He goes to church with the family, and he helps with his younger sisters. In fact, most of the issues I have with Tristan are not around behavior or attitude. They are just little things, problems of motivation and development — the usual things that come with most kids his age.
But this really is the trouble with parenting. I spend a lot of time with Tristan, and as a parent, I feel it’s my job to turn him into the best little guy he can be. I want him to be a successful adult, with a strong respect for women and family. I want him to manage his life responsibly. I want him to be a better person than I am. I want him to be more successful, kinder, gentler — you get the idea. But to do that, for some reason, I think I have become hypercritical of every little thing he does to the point that I complain about him without really examining the fact that he’s not half bad (or even three-quarters bad). In fact, he’s a good little guy, and I should be proud of him.
As I was getting ready to leave Dave’s house, his son started picking up all the toys my children had gotten out. My son, Tristan, sat on their sofa, legs crossed underneath his butt, looking down. It’s the face he usually gives when he’s hopeful that I won’t ask him to help clean.
I looked over at the skinny 15-year-old and said, “I told Dave that you aren’t nearly as bad of a kid as he lets on. He agreed with me. Don’t let it go to your head.”
The young man smiled a little, red-faced, and laughed. Then I looked down at Tristan and said, “You going to help?”
Tristan rolled his eyes, and then he slid off the sofa dramatically and started cleaning. And as he started putting toys back in the toy box, I said, “You know, Tristan. You’re a pretty good kid too. I should give you more credit.”
Tristan looked up at me with a large smile and I crouched down, put my hand out, and he gave me five.
And as we put toys away, I realized that I needed to say things like this more often. Nothing huge, just simple praise. I need to be more supportive and less critical. In fact, I think most parents do. In that moment, I realized just how much I needed to tell this little boy growing into a man about the good things he’s up to.