Tristan, my 8-year-old, was kicking a soccer ball against the wooden fence on the south side of the yard when I snapped at him. He was in a black Minecraft T-shirt, blue shorts, and a blue and green beat up pair of soccer cleats from last season. It was a Saturday around noon.
“Dude,” I said. “How many times have I told you not to kick your ball against the fence?”
He didn’t respond. He just looked down and kicked his ball against the fence.
“HEY,” I said. “What are you doing?”
This time he looked me in the eyes. Then he kicked it.
Here were the problems. Kicking his soccer ball against the fence had broken one of the fence supports, and although part of me was proud of him for having enough power in his kick to do something like that, the other part of me was really frustrated because I knew it meant that I was going to have to fix it. The next door neighbor had commented on it a couple times. The fence was essentially hanging on by a few splinters. I run into things like this a lot as a father. The expectation that I know how to fix things because I’m a man. The neighbor never mentioned how broke the fence was to my wife, Mel. She always brought it up with me, because I was the man, and I should be able to fix something like that. But the fact was, I didn’t know how to fix a fence. Nor was I interested in taking time out of my busy life to learn how to fix a fence. I hate fixing things. I hate using tools. Every time Tristan kicked a ball at that fence, meant that it was once step closer to having to be fixed.
There was also the fact that Tristan, at the age of 8, had been looking for any way he could to test my boundaries. He’d also turned into a know-it-all. I used to really enjoy spending time with Tristan. But suddenly it felt like our time together was filled with arguments over whether the radio can be on in the car on odd or even days, why I don’t need to follow the speed limit because “It’s not that big of a deal” according to him, and so on. This isn’t to say that I don’t love my son, because I do. It just means that he was in a very frustrating stage in life. He was emotional, and a little lazy, and very willing to push every boundary we set on him in very petty ways.
“I swear Tristan, if you don’t stop kicking that ball at the fence, I am going to take away all your soccer balls.”
He looked me in the face again, and then he drew his leg back, and kicked it into the fence again.
I got really angry right then. Angrier than I’d been in a long time. I walked out into the yard, grabbed Tristan by the bicep and I tugged him around the fence, and into the neighbors yard to show him the damage. This was the third time I’d shown him what he’d done to the fence, and every time the support beam looked worse, and every time, he shrugged it off like it wasn’t that big of a deal. And I always looked at it with dread, feeling hopeless because I wasn’t sure how to approach fixing the problem. The thing is, I’m really self-conscious about my inability to fix things. I feel clumsy with tools. As a man, I feel like I should enjoy them, but I don’t. So whenever I am faced with a project like fixing a fence, I feel a pit in my gut.
This time a good portion of the wooden beam was completely snapped off leaning against the neighbors grass.
“Look at that,” I said.
Tristan shrugged, curled his lip a little, and said, “It’s not that big of a deal. You’ll just fix it.”
I felt some serious daddy rage then. I said something that I didn’t expect. “No,” I said. “You’re going to fix it.”
Tristan scoffed. “I don’t know how to fix a fence.”
“Nether do I,” I said. “But we are going to figure this out together.”
He let out a long, agenizing moan. He mentioned that it was getting hot and he wanted to go inside and play video games. He said that I was being mean. “I didn’t do anything wrong. You’re the dad. You need to fix things.”
I walked him into the shed to get a tape measure. We put my drill that I hardly ever use on the charger. We took some measurements, and a few photos, and headed to the hardware store. I honestly had no idea how I was going to fix the stupid thing. But I knew that I needed to teach my son a lesson on how to value what he has, and this seemed like the only way to do it. I was also really pissed off.
We went to the hardware store. I showed the picture of the fence to someone who seemed manly enough to know how to fix it, and he told me what I needed, and how to approach the problem. The funny thing is, I always feel really self-conscious when talking to manly men about how to fix what seems like a simple problem. I feel like I should just know how to fix it. But as I spoke with the clerk at the store, Tristan looked at me with a hint of wonder and pride. I didn’t expect that.
We got home with what we needed, and Tristan tried to tell me it was too hot in the sun. He told me I could do it myself. Everything he said was true, but I wanted him at my side so he would understand that fixing things sucks, and he needed to value what we have.
Once we got into the job, it wasn’t that bad. It just meant removing a few screws and replacing the board.
We were setting the last few screws. Tristan had been quiet for about 20 minutes, but in the silence was a sort of bond. We weren’t fighting. The project was repetitive enough that we didn’t need to talk anymore. We just needed to do our jobs. And there, in that silence, was a father and son moment that I didn’t anticipate. It was a warm feeling of understanding. We were working together, and it felt good.
Once the project was done, and we were cleaning up, Tristan said, “I just wish we had a bigger yard. I want to work on my big kicks, but I can’t because the yard is too small.”
I paused for a moment because he was opening up to me in a way he hadn’t for a long time. The whole time I assumed he was kicking the ball against the fence to be disobedient. I felt like it was a personal attack. Turns out it was his frustration with how small our yard was. I suppose he’d outgrown it.
I thought about what he said. He was right. We did have a small yard. But it was all we had, and suddenly I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I should buy a new house, with a bigger yard, but I knew I couldn’t do that. So instead I said, “I can’t make the yard bigger. But I can take you to the school down the street. They have some grass. We can do that more often, if you’d like.”
Tristan smiled, and together we walked to the school, and played soccer. We laughed and played, and it felt like we understood each other for the first time in months.
We were walking back to the house when Tristan said, “We should fix the fence more often.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We should.”
You would also enjoy, 18 Things YOUR husband never should’ve done when you were pregnant
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 onFacebook and Twitter.