My 9-year-old son, Tristan, ate a booger in front of me. Then he smiled and said, “Mmmmm.”
We were in the backyard pulling weeds because Mel asked me to and Tristan volunteered. It was unusual for him to get excited about wanting to both pull weeds and spend time with me.
The sad fact is, we embarrass each other. We’ve reached that stage where I see him as a messy, unkempt little boy who I want to hug but can’t, and he sees me as this overly affectionate man in a polo shirt and cargo shorts whose advice on hygiene and personal appearance is old-fashioned and worthless. And I am left wondering how I will ever turn this messy-haired, booger-eating, young boy into a respectable young man.
“You know, Tristan,” I said. “Someday you are going to eat a booger in front of someone you’re attracted to. That person is going to call you disgusting, while you are going to think they are cute. It will make you feel so crappy that you won’t ever eat a booger again.”
He rolled his eyes like he always does when I give him advice on life. We went back to pulling weeds in silence again. I wondered how many times he’d eaten a booger in front of others, and I felt a swell of shame and wondered if I was doing something wrong as a parent.
Then Tristan asked me a question I didn’t expect, “Did you ever eat a booger in front of Mom?”
I laughed. “No,” I said. “I grew out of that phase long before I met your mother. That would have embarrassed her. And me.” Then I looked down at him and asked him a question I’d wanted to ask for a long time, but never had.
“Do I embarrass you?” I asked.
He’d been going through this pre-preteen phase. Throughout the years, I’d told him that he needed to calm down because he was making his parents look bad. I’d told him that he needed to stop making fart jokes when we have company because it was embarrassing. Sometimes I’d even told him that he should be embarrassed for this or that, as if I could make a recommendation on how he should or shouldn’t feel about a situation.
All of this was just me projecting my embarrassment on him. And this isn’t to say that he embarrassed me as a whole — I love the hell out of that kid. He’s smart and funny. But the fact is, he is my son, and sometimes he does embarrassing things, just like any little boy. I feel my job as a father is to raise him to be an upstanding young man who doesn’t do embarrassing things, who is the kind of person who is datable and employable.
Recently, however, he’d started to show embarrassment. But it wasn’t for doing things that I found embarrassing. He was obviously embarrassed by me.
Tristan thought about what I said for a moment. He placed his hands in his pockets and dug the toe of his right foot in the dirt behind him. Then he said, “Only when you hug me in front of my friends.”
I already knew this. Or at least I suspected it. A while back, I dropped him off at school. He sprinted from the car, darting in front of the school’s heavy morning traffic to keep me from giving him a hug. Part of me hoped he’d have a close call with a car — a near miss or something. I didn’t want him to get hurt; I just wanted him to be good and scared so I could lean down, look him in the eyes, and say something like, “Not hugging your dad sometimes means getting hit by a car. It’s just the way the universe works.” But none of that happened. Instead, I just stopped hugging him in public because these feelings were obviously a reflection of my desperation as a father. I don’t want him to dart into traffic ever again. It scared the hell out of me.
In fact, in the past year or so, I’d slowly stopped doing a lot of things in public around him. I don’t hold his hand anymore. I don’t kiss him. I don’t comment on his messy hair that is mashed on one side like half of Wolverine’s haircut. I save my recommendations on his appearance and my affection for inside our home.
“I already knew that,” I said. “But I don’t understand why.”
He didn’t give me a long-winded answer about how his friends made fun of him for hugging me. He didn’t tell me about his inner turmoil, or that he just wanted to be treated like an adult, or any of that other preteen stuff. He just shrugged. So I told him what I’d already committed to doing.
“Alright,” I said. “I won’t hug you in front of your friends anymore. Cool?”
He gave me a relieved smile that, in all honesty, made me feel like total shit. It felt like part of him was running off and up and out. It was a confirmation of what I’d already known for a long time. And so I reached out for comfort. “You still love me, though. Right?”
Tristan looked around the yard to see if anyone was looking. Then he gave me a hug. He started to pull away, and I held him for just a moment longer, trying to squeeze out every bit of little boy I’d known for so long. Then we separated, and he gave me a narrow-eyed, side-tipped look that seemed to say, “You’re doing it again, Dad.”
“Sorry,” I said. He half smiled, and together we went back to pulling weeds.
And I suppose this is parenting a preteen. This is what you have to look forward to as a child transitions from one stage to another. They start to step away, and their affection becomes more and more in the shadows because parents are, hands down, embarrassing. But at the same time, as all parents know, it feels good to get a hug from your child, preteen or otherwise, even if it only takes place in the backyard, when no one else is looking.
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