Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.

DamionMy life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.

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Personal, Stories Told

It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

Bonus Garrett story #2, from four years ago, a moment that in retrospect was a turning point in our relationship.

I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over, so I resented the futon instead. And then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.


My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: The boy means no harm. He is usually very surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, and so I gave up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged – both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was deep inside a video game when he leaped exuberantly backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.


The repair is ugly; we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so I finished them all. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?


Fatherhood changes when teenagers are almost ready to launch

I was so happy and proud for my sons on the days they started Kindergarten. I could feel them growing up as they boarded the school bus, their hands on the rail and their superhero backpacks hanging low. I’m sure my grin was plenty goofy as I watched them go.

BoardingBusMy older son was absolutely thrilled to get to ride the bus. He had watched his stepbrother do it for years and was just sure it must be totally awesome and a real sign of being big. When I came home that afternoon, he chattered for a long time about the bus ride, telling me every detail. When I asked him how school was, he said it was okay and told me more stories about the bus ride.

His younger brother was unsure and anxious when his turn came, but he did fine because his bigger brother was there to show him the ropes. When I came home from work that day, he had no stories to tell. When I pried a little, he admitted that he didn’t particularly enjoy the bus ride and wasn’t excited about school. I think that all the new stimulation overwhelmed the poor boy. He slowly adjusted and ended up doing fine.

I was excited to be there for every new adventure, whether happy or challenging, as my boys grew up. I cheered on every rite of passage, unlike their mom who struggled with seeing our sons’ littleness fade and every era end.

My sons are 15 and 17 now, a sophomore and a senior in high school. My older boy has become a little more interested in spending time with his friends than with his family. My younger boy, who is the solitary sort, pursues some deep interests that he has developed.

As a parent, the finish line is finally coming into view for me. My sons are starting to form identities separate from their family and to think about what kinds of lives they want to live on their own. These are natural passages.

But now it’s my turn to struggle. I’m still excited for their adventures to come, but very sad that more and more of them will happen without me in the audience.

During the summer, my sons live one week with their mom and the next with me. They’ve needed less and less direct care over the years, but this year it’s been clear that they are able to stand almost entirely on their own. This was proved by how well they took care of all of us for a couple weeks while I was laid up after surgery. And where in past years they were happy to make day trips with me or just run up to the Dairy Queen for a sundae, this summer what they really wanted to do was play games online with their friends. (Side note: Do kids actually go see their friends anymore? My older boy doesn’t even have his driver’s license yet. He says, “Why do I need it? All my friends are on Skype.”)

Unglaciated view

Can I just admit that it was a little bit of a desperation move on my part when I took vacation the week before school started and booked a couple days away for us? The school year’s grind would soon be upon us, and I wanted a couple of distraction-free days to just hang out with my sons. So we rented a cottage in beautiful Brown County and spent a day exploring the art galleries and shops in Nashville and a day hiking through the state park to take in its stunning views.

I had a good enough time. I think my sons did, too. But both of them were obviously glad to come back home. One of them even told me he especially enjoyed his time at home that week as he could just relax with his friends.

And so it’s time for me to start to let go. I know my sons still value time with me and in my home for the familiarity and security they provide. I know they still need me to guide and coach them. But these things serve more as a launching pad now, a safe place for them to figure themselves out and build their futures. But more and more now I find myself hanging on their every word, even as they chatter on about a video game they just played, wanting to feel like I’m a part of their lives as I was before.

After the divorce, fatherhood brought other unexpected challenges. Read about it here.

Personal, Stories Told

Reflections in the snow

The snowy season began a little early here in Indianapolis, with the first snowfalls in late December. We had a white Christmas for the first time in years. It snowed three times before I was able to shovel my driveway. The more my little car packed down the snow, the more it slipped and slid on the driveway’s slope.

As I cleared the driveway, I reflected on all the snows I shoveled during my childhood. South Bend, where I grew up, gets serious snow; in the winter, it wasn’t unusual for my brother and I to shovel the driveway and sidewalks four or five days a week, sometimes more than once a day. On snowy school days, the minute we came home Mom issued us our shovels. We sometimes complained – why couldn’t we just rest for a little while first? Why couldn’t we wait for Dad so he could help us? Mom always explained that Dad worked hard and so we were going to give him the opportunity to rest when he came home. She asked us to imagine how good he would feel to find a cleared driveway and sidewalk waiting for him when he arrived. She said that this was one way we could show Dad that we loved him.

I began to chop up the packed snow. My sons were at their mother’s, 20 miles away. I had a little pity party, wishing that I had had a happy marriage, the kind where my wife sent my sons out to clear my driveway before I got home. I would have liked to relax after work like my dad used to! But more importantly, I wished we had been a healthy family that could teach my sons valuable lessons about demonstrating love for others. Instead, while I was married we modeled acrimony and strife. Today, their mother and I model fragile détente.

I lamented the raw deal my sons got from their mother and me.

I know that every family has its rough edges and bad times. The family I grew up in was far from perfect – I could tell you stories! But we functioned reasonably well and there was love in our home. That love still binds us together; our shared values and our family way remain a source of comfort and strength. I wished that and more for my marriage and family.

But something good is coming out of this. While I was married I tended to create conditions similar to those of my upbringing whether or not they worked for my sons and wife. But now that I don’t see my sons every day, I can’t create those conditions. I have had to become creative in how I raise them, which leads me to continually evaluate and refine my approaches. I think I am more in tune with my sons’ needs and better able to meet them than I ever was while I was married.

Unfortunately, no amount of creativity will let me model for them how a man should love his wife, at least not while I’m single. Maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to remarry well, to someone my boys come to love, and show them before they’re grown and gone.

Another adjustment I had to make post-divorce was having so much time at home alone. Read that story.