As parents, we hope that our kids get our defining characteristics or talents. An aptitude for math, a beautiful singing voice, empathy, athletic ability. We even hope they mirror us in minor ways. Does he have my eyes? Is her hair like mine? Do they like the same flavor ice cream that I do?
It is my worst fear as a father that I will pass on one of my negative traits to my sons. I am a work-in-progress. 41 years now and I am still looking to improve myself. It was on Day 3 of our vacation that I found myself considering the possibility of passing on these negative traits.
The Noodle (my son, age 5) seems to share a tendency to mirror one of my worst traits- my illogical drive for perfection in anything I do. This is not a healthy desire to continue to challenge myself. This is an unhealthy expectation that either I hit a home run the first time I step up to the plate OR I must have no ability in a particular pursuit and there is no use trying. Like I said- I’m still a work-in-progress. This was a key theme of the commencement speech that my brother Chris and I delivered to our high school’s graduating class this year. (Did you read it? If not, take a look here.) Growing up, I relied on intelligence and a knack for formal schooling- which left me ill-prepared to find alternate strategies for the (real-world) situations when I needed to apply myself and work harder to improve a skill.
As exhibited by my Noodle, this is painful to watch. I see his frustration when he hits adversity in something new. He loves video games- I mean really loves them. As in one of those minor traits of mine that he must have inherited. Unfortunately, an inability to adapt and overcome is a definite disadvantage when it comes to playing video games. If a level or boss is hard the first time he tries it, the meltdown is hard to watch as his father- because I’m blaming myself for that inability to allow himself to fail at something.
This past week we were on vacation at the Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls. Although we had been there once before, we were happy to see a new (non- water park) activity for the boys: MagiQuest. This is a multimedia scavenger hunt taking place over three floors of the resort and our two little guys, the Noodle and the Goon (age 3), really got into it. We spent many hours over the week running around to gather the magic runes that would result in our boys becoming Master Magi. Very cool. Dad wanted his own wand. Mom stopped me from buying the outfits…
The game took a more serious tone once our boys completed the rune Quests and were able to try their hands at one of the Adventures. Unlike the rune Quests, the Adventures were not so clearly laid out in the Book of Wisdom we were issued with the purchase of our wands. Of the 4 Adventures available, Noodle fixated on one of the more challenging ones- venturing into the lair of a ferocious dragon and challenging this Smaug look-alike on its home turf. Quite a challenge for a newly-promoted Master Magi!
Noodle had no trouble completing the early stages of the adventure. That changed once we entered the dragon’s lair. Noodle had to use his wand to cast runes to (SPOILER!) protect from the dragon’s fire, freeze it in place, and launch an ice arrow towards the one chink in its armor. Noodle knew what he had to do- but the timing of casting the runes was pretty challenging for a 5 year old. (The Goon had no interest in that Adventure.) Before I knew it, we had attempted the challenge about 5 times without success.
Noodle had cried tears of frustration after every failure. He was on the verge of a meltdown. Our family vacation wasn’t seeming to be much fun.
To make it worse, our group had re-assembled after a period of individual or small-group activities. The Noodle’s first few failed attempts had been private affairs- Daddy and the Noodle taking a shot at it together. But for the last attempt, Noodle had a big group of immediate and extended family members around to witness his performance. The tears flowed and the meltdown seemed imminent. As I tried keeping Noodle focused on working harder to beat his foe, everyone began chiming in. Nuances of using his wand. Opinions that perhaps this was just too hard for him. Specific instructions to Noodle on what to do next time. Frustrated and all of a sudden finding my voice drowned out in the group, I walked away.
I walked back to our room. Alone for the first time that day, I grabbed my Nook Reader and went out to the patio of our room. In the quiet of my self-enforced solitude, I resumed reading an old favorite I had picked up a couple of days earlier (Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, if you’re interested). In what should have been the perfect moment to read undisturbed I had that, “oh- shit!” moment.
I was frustrated because while I was trying to teach my son an important lesson about determination in the face of adversity everyone else was getting in between my son and I. He couldn’t hear me in the midst of all of the opinions and direction. Frankly, I was pissed. So I left and went back to our room to cool off.
Except- I was giving up because it was getting hard to make my voice heard. While I was so focused on not letting my son give up when he hit adversity I simply walked away because the family noise around us got loud. I don’t mean this as any disrespect to the immediate and extended family around us. I know that every person there loves my son. I don’t doubt anyone’s good intentions. My children’s lives are richer for all of their family. But- he is my son. And this is the kind of lesson that a Dad is supposed to teach. This was my job- and I was not going to let anyone else do it.
In previous posts, I have referenced my failures in life. Given time, I’m sure that they will end up detailed in future posts. I am far from perfect. I keep my head high because I own my shit. (That’s part of the lesson of manhood that I hope to pass on to my sons.) It was exactly that sort of, “what are you doing?” moment that had me running from our room back to the area where I figured Noodle would still be striving to beat the dragon.
The distance between our room and the multimedia screen was not very far. It was far enough, however, for me to suitably chastise myself for giving up just because I felt challenged while trying to teach my son an important lesson. Was I really that clueless that while trying to teach my son the value of trying harder when he faces adversity I just gave up because it was getting hard to make my voice heard? Unfortunately, yes. That is exactly what I had done and exactly why I was mentally cursing myself out while running back to the game area. I was chalking this up to another shortcoming of mine while figuring that if I missed Noodle succeeding I had no one but myself to blame.
It was with distinct relief that I got back up to the 4th floor and saw that he was in mid-challenge, the dragon flaming and posturing again against Noodle’s mystic might. I quietly moved to the edge of our group and started mentally rooting for him. I just wanted him to succeed after failing so many times.
Sadly, the Noodle was beaten again. His head dropped in the midst of all the cascading directions from everyone around him. Screw this. This was a job for Dad. I walked over next to the Noodle.
“Everyone needs to give [the Noodle] and me some space,” I declared politely but firmly. “[The Noodle] and I are going to finish this.”
I love my wife. She gets me- imperfections and efforts all. She saw the look in my eye and gathered everyone up, moving them to the elevator and off to another group activity. In a moment, the Noodle and I were alone in front of the video screen now displaying the generic animation loop. Noodle’s chin was still on his chest and his eyes were wet.
“Listen buddy- we can’t give up.” I crouched down so we saw eye to eye. “I know it’s hard when you lose. But if you give up now, you’ll never beat it. I promise you- if you just keep trying harder, you can do it. I’ll be right next to you.”
Noodle nodded slowly and wiped his eyes. He raised up his wand and we both looked at the screen…
…he lost again. I’m telling you- part of me was wishing he had never started this. But I can’t keep him from the tough parts of life. That’s not a Dad’s job. It’s my job to build the courage to press on when it gets tough. So I looked at him, eye to eye, and said, “We’re going to beat this.”
Noodle waved his wand and entered the virtual dragon’s lair one more time. I stood right next to him, a bundle of nervous energy and kept repeating a ridiculous mantra to myself as Noodle selected the correct runes from the touchscreen and cast them with his wand. “Please please please- let him win this time…”
Noodle won. There are not many moments in this imperfect adulterated life that we get to experience purity. I was lucky enough to see it that moment in the joy on his face. This was a silly little game- but for the Noodle, he had won and could not be any happier if he’d won the lottery. And I was so happy because he had not quit- he had dug deeper and kept fighting after 7 or 8 failed attempts. In that moment, every failure I’ve ever mentally recorded and replayed as a father and a man was inconsequential.
I am truly an optimist at heart. I believe we are defined by our finest moments- not our lowest. For me, that moment watching the Noodle do a victory dance to the closing music of the celebratory animation meant more than my failure in walking away 15 minutes earlier. These are the moments that give me faith. We’re doomed to fail- it is part of our intrinsic heritage as imperfect beings in an even more imperfect world. But I am grateful for the opportunity to rise above those stumbles.
So who knows- maybe there is hope for me yet. 41 years but still working hard to better myself. And if I work hard enough, perhaps I’ll be able to pass along some of those learnings to my sons.