I am told that my five-year-old, Benjamin, looks like me. Since he’s a devilishly handsome little guy, why should I argue with that assessment?
I am also told that he acts a lot like me. While I’m pleased he has some of my good qualities, seeing him reflect my less desirable behaviors magnifies my inadequacies to an uncomfortable degree.
Few things are worse than hearing my wife ask, “Benjamin, why are you always running late?” “Well, Daddy’s always late, too,” he says proudly. In moments like this, I want to take a page out of George Jefferson’s book of wisdom: “Son, don’t do as I do, do as I say!”
Though I’ve conquered many of my bad habits, certain patterns buried deep within my genes rear their ugly heads in my son. And it drives me crazy.
One pattern involves a tendency to sabotage myself when I really want to do something well, like playing music. As a kid, I had an affinity for the piano, but threw away years of lessons because I became increasingly afraid of making mistakes.
Now, I see Benjamin doing the same thing. For two years, he adored his Piano Play classes, showing real talent on the ivories. As the technical challenge has increased, he’s fallen behind his classmates, who diligently do their homework. With heightened frustration, he’s started to avoid doing something he enjoys.
On a recent Monday night practicing at the mini-piano, Benjamin has ants, crickets, and ladybugs in his pants. His attention is everywhere but the sheet music — and he thinks he’s funny.
“If you press this key and this one, it sounds like a Star Wars blaster,” he offers as, remarkably, Imperial Storm Trooper sounds crash through the tiny speakers. “Let’s lay off the inter-galactic violence images and play “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” I say impatiently.
He returns his attention to the piece, but can’t make it through half the song without a medley of interruptions: “I’m still hungry. Where’s Mommy? Are we done yet?” I answer each question with a progressively sharper edge: “There’s no more food in the house. Mommy’s left us for a country singing career. We are never going to finish if you keep lolly-gagging!”
He bursts into laughter. “Heh, heh, heh. You said lolly-gaggaggling.”
I try not to laugh at my in-house Beavis and Butthead and get him to focus: “Show me where the ‘doh’ note is.” Benjamin lackadaisically searches the keyboard and plays a ‘soh.’ “No, play the ‘doh,’ I repeat. He plays a ‘mee.’ I grab his hand and place it on the ‘doh’ key. He pulls away. “I can do it myself.”
“Then why the…why can’t you play the ‘doh’? I growl back. “You knew where it was for two years, so why can’t you remember it now?”
Benjamin searches my face for benevolence. Seeing none, he hides his face and cries. I feel horrible as I apologize. His lesson is over, yet mine has just begun.
Why can’t he remember that note? Why is he sabotaging two years of progress? Perhaps he’s frustrated that it isn’t easier to play the song, so his musical memory shuts down. But what will become of him, I wonder dramatically. I see the road he’ll take, strewn with challenges unmet. I don’t want him to be like me.
Then, I stop myself. I’m treating him like some kind of Gershwin prodigy when he’s only five. So, I let it go with lots of hugs and hope he doesn’t hate me.
The next day at piano class, he struggles and I resist the temptation to coach him. Then, our teacher, Miss Phoebe, asks the parents to say the notes of a new tune while our children play it. I begin to recite them: “Mee, soh, ray – ” Miss Phoebe comes over to correct me and Benjamin busts a gut: “You didn’t know that was a ‘lah’!”
Seeing Benjamin have a grand time with Daddy’s mistake, I say, “Where should I put my finger for the next one?” He shows me and offers, “You just ask me the notes and I’ll tell you.”
Now, I know I can help Benjamin by letting him have a little benign authority over me. While I seldom asked for control as a child, Benjamin craves it. It’s a big distinction between us and I’m delighted.
At the end of the lesson, he leans against me, molding himself into me in contentment. Sure, he’s made from similar clay. Yet, I realize I’m a better parent when I look for what makes him unique rather than try to prevent him from making my mistakes.
I want to thank Benjamin for teaching me that I’m not re-creating a better version of myself. I’m facilitating a whole new person who’s exceeding my expectations in every way. I also want to thank my younger son, Jacob, for being nothing like me (but like his mother). And I want to thank my father, and grandfathers too, who guided me to individuality with gentle hands that I hope will someday be just like theirs.