Wisdom comes in the shape of my son’s size eleven running shoe.
Several weeks ago I had foolishly challenged him to a hundred-yard dash. Now, as he runs easily away from me, his foot strikes tap out a message with metronomic precision: The tide has turned.
I don’t recall exactly how the challenge came up, only that I was very enthused about it. Ben, being fourteen, was nonchalant about any idea originating from his father, although he did seem to like his odds of victory. He was, at that time, in the middle of basketball season, running wind sprints every day. My training consisted of trash talking.
Make sure you come to the race hungry, ‘cause you’ll be eating my dust.
Now some of you (for instance, my wife) are probably saying to yourselves, “What a sad little man, searching for ways to demonstrate your physical superiority over your child.” To any of you, I say, “Your only shot of beating me is if you’re the guy with the starter’s pistol.”
To the rest of you, who are sane and rational (just kidding, honey!), I merely offer up a reminder that these little contests are inextricably woven into the father/son relationship. The poster child for this dynamic was, of course, Oedipus Rex, who killed his father (and then engaged in a relationship with his mother far too sordid for a genteel family publication, which is why I am not mentioning that stuff here). In my family, we are not into patricide (at least, this pater is not), so we search for less dramatic stages upon which this drama can be played out.
When Ben was very young, the question I strove with was, how much do I let him win?
Take, for example, light saber duels. If your three-year-old doesn’t even know to employ Bonetti’s defense when you attack with Capo Ferro, your superiority is unquestioned.As fulfilling as it may have seemed to dole out defeat after soul-crushing defeat, I felt it necessary to allow him to win every now and then.
You’ll know I’ve crossed the finish line when my parachute deploys.
There are different opinions on this philosophy. One time, when Ben was about seven, a friend of mine was visiting. Ben and I were playing football in the front yard and Ben broke a “tackle” and ran for a touchdown. My friend shook his head.“Don’t tell me you’re one of those dads.”
Those dads being the kind who let their kids win, which, in my friend’s opinion, leads to moral turpitude, communism, and Justin Bieber.
Maybe I am one of those dads, and maybe I’m not. (For the record, I’m not.) But Ben is fourteen now, and we have arrived at an inflection point. He is now as tall as I am, a fact he reminds me of by appearing randomly at my side, raised to his full height, grinning mischievously.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“No, no. I was just, ah, passing by.”
It has been a long time since I let him win at anything: basketball, soccer, tennis, yard darts. In any contest of physical abilities, the gap between us has closed to nothing.
Now, I could do one of several things. I could, as my wife likes to say, “Take my ball and go home.” In other words, stop giving him the chance to beat me by refusing to play him. Another option would be to cheat. I have a large bag full of dirty tricks, cheap shots, underhanded tactics, and petty cons that might buy me another year or two of ill-gotten advantages. Or, I could go with the ultimate power play and make it apparent that he can either let me win or kiss his Xbox goodbye.
Bring soap to the race so you can clean up in my jet wash.But I have a confession to make. I like that he has grown big, grown tall, grown strong. He is ascendant, and these contests are important markers on his journey towards manhood. In a few years, he’ll outmatch me in just about any physical contest. But for now, for this brief time, we are well-matched. We both get to try our hardest. Sometimes he wins; sometimes I win.
In the hundred-yard dash, it’s obvious after twenty yards that the day is his. What I thought were my jets turned out to be a single-engine propeller. He makes it look effortless, thanks to his youthful immunity from the laws of physics, his non-stick coating that nullifies the same wind resistance that beats on his middle-aged competitor like a truncheon.But when he crosses the finish line, he is surprised to find me only a few steps behind.
“Wow,” he says. “You did better than I thought.”
It’s trash talk (I wonder where he learned that?) But essentially true. I did better than I thought, too. But it’s easy to go a little faster when your kid is leading you out and you are close enough to float along in his slipstream. Close enough to cheer him on, even if you’ll never catch him.