This morning Detective Munch handed me an old iPod he’d been playing with and asked me to fix it. I told him I couldn’t, and he wanted to know why.
“You fix my trains!”
“Why can’t you fix this?”
This doesn’t offend me; he’s only three. Plus, iPods aren’t exactly the easiest devices to dissect and MacGyver back to life. But “fixing” his trains mostly involves replacing the batteries, and the truth is he could ask me to fix almost anything and I’d be at a loss. I’m not a handy man.
A common male stereotype is that men can fix things. Kids expect dads to fix things. But – unless you count breakfast, which, don’t, because I can’t even make decent pancakes – I can’t fix shit.
Am I failing my son?
Before I had a kid and my brain began to melt, I had a solid memory for entertainment-based trivia. I used to dominate “3 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” in college (the “3” is not a typo. Bring it.). I’m great at movie pong, I know a lot of song lyrics – but only when the song is playing (I can never remember them without the melody), and before the internet took over and the answers were suddenly at everyone’s fingertips, I was the go-to guy for “what’s that guy from?”
None of those “skills” are transferable. In fact, I have so few practical skills that I worry that I’m letting my son down.
I’m never going to be the kind of father who teaches his son how to use a split saw, or how to mount a television, or even how to change his oil. I leave that kind of stuff to the people who won’t accidentally sever their limbs or put enormous holes in the wall or don’t mind getting all gross and dirty.
I’m secure enough in my masculinity to be okay with not being the host of “Tool Time”. But what am I left to teach my son? What is he left to learn from me?
Sure, I can help teach him the same basics every other parent does: how to read; simple arithmetic; good manners; how to dunk an Oreo. But as a marketing professional with a liberal arts degree and almost no tangible skills to pass onto a child, what am I good for? What kid of father am I?
I played a few instruments in high school, and I had some talent, but I haven’t touched them in 20 years. (Plus, one of them was the clarinet and I’m not about to condemn my son to a future in the marching band.) I like to write and I’m okay with words, but I hardly get paid for it and I’m not a professor. Besides, it will be years before I have any idea if my kid has even the slightest aptitude for, or interest in, this kind of thing, and words may well be obsolete by then, replaced by screens full of abbreviations and emoji.
My three-year-old will learn some stuff from me solely by osmosis, like how to be a sarcastic dick, and how to drum along with John Bonham on a steering wheel, and what the best breweries are, and why American football is the best football (even though I never played it and he certainly won’t). He’ll learn about the music I like and the movies and TV I love and the books I treasure, so maybe he’ll be well-rounded when it comes to pop culture, and maybe he’ll dominate “3 Degrees of Joseph Gordon-Levitt” in college. The student (of nothing) will become the master (of nothing). The circle-jerk is now complete.
I can teach my kid “values” out the wazoo, but I’m devoid of practical knowledge. I can’t cook, I can’t carpenter, I can’t even golf. I can’t draw, I can’t sing, and as you’ve probably learned by now, I have no idea how to parent. I am a dad of no trades. (I did try to teach him how to ice-skate, but as you can see below, that didn’t go well.)
I know this isn’t the Middle Ages and my son is not my apprentice. But he is my responsibility, and I am charged with making sure he’s prepared for the world. I’m just not sure I know how.
Values are important, perhaps more important than any specific skill-set, and perhaps even harder to impart. Because there are no instructions for teaching your kid how to be a good person. If there were, parenting wouldn’t be parenting, it would be training. And if you could train children, there wouldn’t be so many blogs complaining about them.
Besides, odds are, if you spend your kid’s childhood training him up to be whatever you are, or whatever you wanted to be, he’ll spend most of his young adulthood rebelling against that. Your job is to give your kids a foundation, not the whole house.
I imagine some of these anxieties are normal, even for a man’s man, like Ron Swanson. I’ve known since the day my son was born that raising him is the most important thing I’ll ever do, and so, aside from the normal everyday stresses of normal everyday life, his development and his future are the biggest concerns I have. I worry that, aside from keeping him alive until his 18th birthday and giving him my unconditional love and support, I have little else to offer.
Maybe I’m not failing my son. Maybe my love and support are enough. One of the trippiest parts of parenting is realizing that when your kids are born, it no longer matters who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Not to them. To them you’re just Daddy, and the most important thing you can offer is yourself. All of yourself. Because despite how small that “all” may seem to you, to your children it’s everything.
Maybe what I’m realizing is that no matter what I’m ultimately able to teach my son, it’s nothing compared to what raising him is going to teach me.
After all, it won’t be long before I’m asking HIM to fix MY phone.