My 8-year-old asked me to check his temperature again. It was a Saturday, and he’d asked me to check his temperature every hour for the past seven hours. Every time he wasn’t sick.
“No,” I said. “I have checked your temperature enough today. You are not sick. Stop trying to fake it so you can get screens.”
He was sprawled out on the sofa, wearing a green Minecraft t-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. He looked at me, big sad blue eyes, face in a half frown, and let out the saddest little fake cough.
“My throat hurts real bad,” he said.
About six months ago Tristan found out that if he’s sick, he can stay home from school, or church, or whatever and play screens all day. For those of you without young kids, here’s the situation. Screens (tablets, TV, video games, smart phones) are about as addictive for children as heroin. And my son was an addict. If I let him, he’d sit in his underwear all day, hunched over a glowing screen, eating dry cereal. As a parent, every time I see him doing this, I imagine him in his mid 30s, hairy and smelly, and still wearing Pokémon underwear and living in my house, and I feel pain in my chest. Mel and I have discussed taking screens away all together, but it’s just not happening. They are too powerful. So we have placed limits on how much screen time Tristan can have. We have a rule in our house. No one can play with glowing screens unless they do a list of chores:
1. Brush teeth
2. Read for 20 minutes
3. Do something creative/active/productive for 45 minutes
4. Room is tidy
5. Clean up after yourself in living room and dining room
But the problem is, if Tristan is sick, really sick, like has a fever or is puking, we don’t ask him to do the chores because it would make us feel like assholes. And, screens tend to get him to sit, and rest, and get better faster.
However, this policy has turned my son into a hypochondriac. He asks at least five times a day for someone to check his head for a fever. Every time I run the thermometer across his head, he looks up at me with watery eyes that are a mix of hope and imitated sickness. They seem to say a little prayer, “Lord: Please make me ill.”
I looked down at Tristan still lounging on the sofa and said. “Really? You’re sick?” I said. “You didn’t seem that sick a minute ago when you were playing basketball in the front yard.”
He glared at me. Then he got up and looked for his mother.
This is one of those parts of parenting that really sucks because I feel just like my mother. As a child it felt like I could have lost a limb in a car accident, the stump still bleeding, and she’d send me to school. I know this is an exaggeration, but as a child it all seemed very unjust. And as I watched Tristan walk down the hall to ask his mother to check for a fever, I could see injustice in his short heavy steps.
Mel checked his temperature, and sure enough, he was fine. And it went on like this the rest of the day, and on into Sunday. Tristan kept having little bursts of energy. He’d play in the yard, or run around the house. He’d refuse to do his list of chores to get screens. Every hour or so, he’d lay down on the sofa, tell us he was sick, cough, and then ask to have his temperature checked. And every time he’d come in at 98 degrees. Perfectly healthy. And every time I told him he was fine, he’d give me the meanest little glare: a mix of confusion and anger and injustice that said, “Don’t you trust me?”
I’d always say fatherly things like, “Faking sick to get out of obligations is a nasty life skill,” followed by a straight-faced dad look.
It wasn’t until Monday that we got a call from Tristan’s school. The secretary said he’d been sitting in the principal’s office complaining of feeling dizzy and weak. Mel took him to the doctor, and sure enough, he had STREP throat, but for some reason, he never got a fever.
I came home from work that day, and Tristan was sitting on the sofa playing a tablet. He was in his underwear, wrapped in a quilt, and eating dry Cheerios. He looked up at me, his mouth in a straight line. Then he said.
“I really was sick, Dad. The doctor said it.” He dragged out the last sentence for emphasis.
His tone was mix of “I told you so” and vengeance. He acted like I owed him an apology. And in some ways, I did. He was, indeed, sick and I didn’t believe him. But at the same time, I was too prideful for that. I didn’t want this to turn into a “you didn’t believe me that one time, so you have to believe me now” thing.
So I crouched down and said, “Listen, dude. Someday you are going to be a dad and you are going to realize how important school and hard work are. Right now screens are the major thing. And when you become a dad, your kid will probably think something else is the thing. And you will hate that thing because it will come between your child and learning how to get work done.”
Tristan looked at me through slanted eyes. This clearly wasn’t what he wanted to hear. But he was still listening, so I kept talking.
“I just want you to grow up and be the best Tristan you can be, and learning how to get your list done, and understanding the importance of school, is a big deal. I’m really sorry that you are sick. But realize that just because I didn’t believe you this one time and you turned out to really be sick doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up on my efforts to turn you into a hard working adult. Does that make sense?
“No,” Tristan said.
“That’s okay. It will someday.”
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.