A few months ago my 12-year-old son went to the park with some friends. They were kids he knew from school who lived a block or two away from us. The park was just down the street. They all left on their bikes, with baseball gloves mitts, and bats. I watched them pull out and ride down the street, looking like a scene from The Sandlot.
But he came back home about 20 minutes later, alone. I was surprised; I assumed they’d be out there for at least an hour or more. As he parked his black BMX in the garage, I asked him why he was home so soon.
He took off his helmet, brown hair a mess, put his mitt on one of the garage shelves, and said in this matter-of-fact tone, “Those kids were swearing and I didn’t like it. I asked them to stop, and they wouldn’t. It was making me uncomfortable so I left.”
I stood there quietly for a moment, with him looking me straight in the eyes, shoulders straight. Everything about his posture seemed to say, “I did what you always told me to do in a situation like this.” And sure, I had told him to do exactly what he did. He ever felt uncomfortable, or found himself in a bad situation, he needed to stand up and ask those people to stop. This could be friends, teachers, family… whatever. But like most parents, I’m always a little surprised the theoretical action plans I teach my children when faced with a bad situation turn into practice, and I am left thinking to myself, “You were actually listening?!”
But I must say, my real shock had more to do with me than him.
Naturally, I told him I was proud of him. I even gave him a high five and told him to go into the pantry for some cookies. I mean, wow. That’s pretty ballsy for a 12-year-old to look at their peers and ask them to stop swearing.
As he went into the house to get a cookie, I stood there in the garage trying to figure out where this kid came from. I mean honestly. I was so glad he felt confident enough to separate himself from a situation he didn’t feel comfortable with, but back in the day, I was the kid swearing at the park. I was the kid who was two clicks from being sent to the alternative high school. I was the one who got the side eye from most of my friend’s parents for saying inappropriate things. And to make matters worse, I was also the kid who would’ve thrown a punch at the kid who asked me to stop swearing. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a criminal, exactly. I don’t think was destined for prison. But that is a far distance from my son.
I should admit, though, by the time I was 12, my dad was addicted to opioids. He’d left a few years earlier, and we didn’t talk all that much. He was in and out of jail for most of my high school years and died from his addictions when I was 19. My mother was working two or three jobs to make ends meet, and when she was home, we didn’t get along. By the time I was 14, I’d run away from home and was experimenting with drugs. I eventually went to live with my grandmother.
Now, a couple decades later, I’m a grown father of three who had a pretty rough childhood trying to figure out how he somehow raised the boy that says, “Stop swearing or I’m leaving.”
To be honest, I’m not 100% sure how it happened — but I must say, as I stood there in the garage listening to my son rummage around in the pantry, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was doing it right. There’s something about growing up in a broken home, with an absent parent, that can make you wonder if you’re doing it all wrong because you never had a good example. And of course, we all talk about breaking the cycle, but what does that really look like?
I don’t know, honestly. But what I can say is that this was one of those moments where all the fear and anxiety I had going into parenthood, where I wondered if I was going to make the same mistakes as my father because I didn’t know any better, started to ease off like air escaping from a tire.
Sure, we have a long way to go yet. He’s only 12. And we have two daughters coming up behind him that I have to keep an eye on. And yeah, things could take a left turn at any moment, right into the ditch. But just for that moment, I felt pretty proud of my son because he demonstrated what I’ve been teaching him all these years, and also kind of proud of myself, too — because I realized that I might just be breaking the cycle.