Parenting is trying to be there at the right time

March 11, 2001|By David Trembley

MILWAUKEE -- Two days before his 13th birthday, Barry, who calls me Dad, leads me inside a store that I would never enter on my own.

"You're not going to like these prices," Barry says.

Indeed, I do not. He skips over the most expensive merchandise, but the shirt and pants Barry brings for my approval cost $78.

"How about it, Dad?" Barry says. "Aren't these cool?"

Perhaps it is time for a confession. I do most of my own shopping at resale stores, so that $78 would equip me with four pairs of pants, five shirts and three sports coats.

The second half of my confession is that Barry, even though he calls me Dad, is not legally my son. His biological father has never been in his life. He has two uncles who love him, but they both have families of their own, so Barry and I decided to adopt each other. We've known each other for six years. In the last two years, Barry has been calling me Dad.

With the confession comes the solution. The only issue that matters here is that I have been too much willing to be a "Disney Dad." Disney Dads come and go and, when they come, they always bring gifts. They hope the gifts they bring will make up for all the times they go.

But I am not Barry's biological father; I am a do-gooder. Why should I have any guilt to buy off? Isn't it true that whatever I do for Barry will be better for him than if I were not around?

Too many words. The parental relationship is always the same, regardless of biology. All parents, by virtue of the parenting enterprise, make more promises than they can keep. Just about every child in the world has been profoundly disappointed by their moms and dads.

So let's make a deal, son. You pretend that I'm giving you all the attention you want and need, and I'll pretend that I haven't noticed how your grades are slipping. You maintain the charade of dutiful obedience, and I'll pay you back by buying you too-expensive clothes.

It's no accident that this sort of betrayal manifests itself for many of us just as our children are entering early adolescence. Precisely when they are in the developmental stage where they very much need a trustworthy presence they can kick and buck against, we back away. But it is their job to leave us, not the other way around.

It's too late for me to return Barry's 13th birthday presents, but it's not too late for Barry and me. I'm going to get hold of him this week, and we're going to do something together. I don't have any idea what activity we will share, but I am sure that it won't cost me a penny. Barry doesn't need my money. He needs me.

David Trembley is a writer, pastor and college writing instructor. His most recent book is "Pray With All Your Senses"(ACTA Publications, Chicago 1997.)

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