The day I realized I want my son to be better than me.

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I was sitting on the lip of my 8-year-old’s bed. It was after 8:00 p.m., and he wouldn’t look at me. His face was buried in the pillow. I’d sent him to bed without dinner, and honestly, I think this was the first time I’d ever done something like that. Not that he’d never been punished, he had. I’d simply never had to make him go without a meal before.


He’d never pushed it this far.


Usually all it took was sending him to his room for a bit, or taking away his screen time. That sort of thing. But recently, since he’d made the transition into the third grade, he’d been a lot harder to get through to. Whenever I’d ask him to do something: clean the living room, do his homework, help his younger sister… He refused to listen. Sometimes he’d act like he didn’t hear me, or he responded in nonsense, saying “Bah. Bah” or some other frustrating thing.


It had been going on for a few months now, and it was maddening and frustrating, and made me want to drive him into the woods.


But what got him put into bed without dinner was a serious lack of dinner table manners. About an hour earlier, we’d been at dinner. We’d finished our prayer, and immediately Tristan and his younger sister, Norah, ran to the stove, pushing each other and saying “Me first! Me first!”


Mel, my wife, got so frustrated with them arguing and pushing each other over who was first, that she threw both their plates on the ground, smashing one, and sent them to their rooms. For the most part, Mel is a levelheaded woman. Sometimes she slams doors, but I’d never seen her smash something like that.


I was sitting at the table during all this, feeding our toddler Aspen, and I couldn’t believe how rude my children were. It’s in moments like this that I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. At first I always blame them. Call them rude or bratty in my head, but the reality is, it’s my job to teach them how to act at the table, and obviously I hadn’t.


So I took both kids from their rooms. Reminded them of the rules for approaching the stove for food. Told them to hold out their plates, and to wait until everyone was served before they ate. And Norah, our bubbly, brown haired 6-year-old, listened and smiled, while Tristan shook with rage. He had an entitled look in his blue eyes, and I think half the reason Norah was being so agreeable was because Tristan wasn’t. She was trying to earn points for being sweet and nice, and she knew that acting the opposite of Tristan would piss him off.


I got them both food and seated at the table. Tristan was red-faced and angry the whole time because I wouldn’t let him dive into his food until his mother and I had sat down. And then, when Norah asked him to pass the salt, he threw it at her.


I’m not an angry person. But when I watched my son throw that shaker, I started to tremble. I’d never been so angry. It was a white-hot rage that I didn’t really understand, but felt so strongly, that I picked Tristan up, carried him down the hall, tossed him on his bed, and told him he didn’t get dinner. The whole time I cradled him into his room, he kept saying he was sorry, and the whole time all I could think was, “he was my son.”


And in the moment, I didn’t understand why that was so important to me. Those words “my son…” Not until I sat next to Tristan on his bed, after an hour or so later, and I’d had a moment to calm down, did it start to make sense.


“Tristan,” I said. “Do you know why I got so mad at you back there?”


He was wrapped in a brown and red quilt. His shaved head still buried into the pillow, legs bent into his stomach, butt stuck in the air. Everything about his body said he was closed off.


He shook his head.


“Because I want you to be better than me. I want you to go on and be a better father and a better person. I want you to live in a bigger house and be a better husband. But the problem is, I’m not sure how to get you there. I’m not sure how to help you be that person because I’m not that person.”


I paused for a moment, trying to formulate something that I’d thought about a number of times, but had never placed into words.


“I just know that when you act like you did at the table, I feel like I’m not helping you to be that better person. And you know what, I don’t want you to feel like I’m putting too much pressure on you. I love you no matter what. It’s just that I want that for you because I know how special you are. I want you to be something that I never could be because I see how much potential you have to be better than I ever could be.”


I don’t know if what I said made any sense, but in my mind it did. My father died from drug addiction when I was 19, so I feel confident that I’ve turned out better than him. But at the same time, I feel like he set the bar really low, and I want Tristan to do so much more. I’m not really sure what that looks like though, but what I do know is that it didn’t look like throwing a saltshaker at his sister.


“I want you to know that I’m not mad at you. I’m just mad at your actions. I know that you are better than your actions tonight. I’ve seen it so many times. And tomorrow, we will try again.


We sat in silence for a while.


Then I said, “Is there anything you want to say?”


Tristan spoke into his pillow, “Can I still have dinner?”


“No.” I said, “I’m sorry.”


Then sat up and turned around, still wrapped in his quilt.


His eyes were wet.


“You know I love you,” I said.


He sniffled, and then wiped his nose on his forearm.


“Yes,” he said.


“Is there anything else you want to say?” I asked. I wasn’t suggesting that he apologize. I just wanted to make sure that he didn’t feel silenced.


“Will you read to me?” he said.


I smiled and said, “Yes.”


He crawled out from his blanket, and gave me hug. Then I grabbed the copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The one Mel and I had been taking turns reading to him each night.


I crawled into bed next to him, and began reading.


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