Mickey Fuertes finally realizes that even immature jerks can become great dads.
I have a terrible secret to share with you: for the better part of my life, I was a jerk. Picture in your mind every single jerk you have ever met. And then imagine that amalgamation of jerks had a mentor. I was that mentor. The kind of man who was the archetypal reference point in Greg Behrendt’s He’s Just Not That Into You. The kind of man who would have reveled in being Tucker Max’s wingman (beer and hell, here we come). The kind of man who would do anything, anything at all, just for the sake of having a great story to tell his friends.
I do not want to mislead anyone; this is not a cautionary tale nor is it a moving story of my eventual redemption. My wife has dealt with the tumultuous road of my maturing and it is reflective of the strength of our relationship and her faith in me that we are even married at all. The reason I mention this previous version of me (the “beta version” if you will) is because this shadowy figure has followed me into fatherhood and it is time that I dealt with him, once and for all.
I am the proud father of a beautiful 4-year-old little boy. He is intelligent, sincere, sweet, honest and utterly affectionate. Every single day, he amazes me with his wit, his humor, and his sense of curiosity. Like all parents, I have the highest expectations of him. And this is where the problems generally begin.
My wife thinks I expect too much of him. She has a professional background in education and a degree in Early Childhood Education and Development. By default, she knows when our son has reached age-specific milestones and when my expectations of his growth and behavior are simply beyond his age group.
I, on the other hand, don’t think that I should ever lower my expectations of him. As a stay-at-home dad, I spend nearly 10 hours alone with him every weekday and have seen how attentive, responsible and mature he can be. Whenever he is having a moment where he is not listening, when he is making the “wrong choices,” or when he is simply being a precocious toddler, she understands the underlying reasons for his behavior. To me, he is simply being bad. And I will not tolerate or excuse bad behavior simply because he’s young.
While I have always believed that my counter-argument was based on logic and empirical evidence (believe it or not, I have documented observations that he can be a well-behaved little boy), my militaristic standards for appropriate behavior for a 4-year-old are actually based on one fear. I am afraid that he will grow up to be me.
I look at my son and I see all of the amazing qualities that he has. And, yet, I want more for him; I want more from him. And now I worry that the shadow of my former self is stopping me from becoming a better father. My fear motivates all of the negative attributes that I have recognized in myself as a father. All of the times when I am impatient with him, when I don’t listen to his explanations, whenever I do not take the time to explain why his behavior is inappropriate, it is because I am terrified that, if I lower my expectations of him, then he will lower his expectations of himself. I push him, harder than anyone else in his life, because I am afraid that he will not live up to the infinite amount of potential I see in him.
As parents, we all carry what is probably an unhealthy amount of fear with us every single day. Some is justified as part of our instinctive need to protect our children. But how our fears manifest can impact our children negatively. Worrying that my son will grow up to be an unforgivable little jerk has engendered my unattainable expectations of him. For other parents, it can be the fear of their child getting hurt that prevents them from letting their child take part in certain sports. For others, it can be the fear of finally letting go of their child that prevents them from allowing their child to stay on-campus during their college years.
At the risk of sounding like a daytime talk show host, I do strongly caution parents to check their motivations when making decisions for and about their children. I have always maintained that parenting is an individual experience, shaped by the specific traits and needs of each child. Nevertheless, at the same time, as parents we do share universal emotions: joy, love, pain, pride, and (biggest of all) fear. Never let fear guide any of your decisions. And most especially when it comes to your kids. Your fears will place a stricter restriction on their potential than any lack of effort from their part ever will. In trying to do the best for them, ironically, your fear will establish boundaries for them and limit their experiences. For me, I have realized that in forcing him to listen to me and do things my way, I am only ensuring that he will grow up to be just like Daddy; in trying to make sure he would live up to his potential, I have prevented him from having the very experiences that would guarantee he would surpass my expectations.
The other night, exhausted after a day spent reprimanding my son and cleaning up after the numerous messes he had created, I prepared myself to go to bed. As is my habit, I crept into the room to check-in on him before going to sleep. The room was cold and I carefully pulled up his comforter to make sure he was warm. The door was open a bit and, as the light fell on his face, I was amazed by how angelic he looked while he slept. I gently kissed him on the forehead and realized that, no matter how much of my blood is in him, he would never grow up to be a jerk like me.
photo: makelessnoise / flickr