Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Sometimes now I yell, just like my dad

Matthew Berg and his dad Joel.
Matthew Berg and his dad Joel.

My son Matthew may never be the best soccer player on the pitch. But he's certainly one of the happiest. When he runs full tilt, his grin stretches farther than his 9-year-old legs.

Yet this spring, after a soccer instructor turned drill sergeant on him, I feared his smile would disappear.

The scene brought back memories of my own childhood. I gave up on organized soccer after a coach tried making me run laps for punishment. I walked instead of ran, and took some pleasure in the coach's impotent fury. I knew I wasn't coming back.

But that barking coach at Matthew's soccer clinic reminded me more of my dad, whose impatience also gave way to anger.

Once, unable to open a bottle of hand soap, he smashed the container, sending bubbles all over the bathroom. He was the one who exploded after I announced, at 18, that I didn't want to go to college.

Back then, I couldn't really run away. Instead, I would meet his anger with more anger. And after a while, I learned to hold it in. I could never really win the argument, anyway.

I stuck to this model even after I had children of my own - first Matthew, and then Jack, now 7. But I had a new name for my restraint: mindfulness, the state of parental calm and focus peddled by well-intentioned parenting experts.

If mindful dads do get angry, they're supposed to breathe deeply and escalate slowly, in ways designed to head off the yell, the parental equivalent of nuclear war.

I breathed. I deliberated. I didn't yell.

But I was still keeping it all in, not because I was being a better, more mindful dad. It was from a desire not to be my father.

It's not the most original goal. But when that instructor first yelled at Matthew, I began to realize how limiting that philosophy had been.

In trying not to be like my dad, I was being the sullen boy who resented his dad's anger but gave up on expressing his own. I hadn't become a dad in my own right; I hadn't really moved on.

It turns out that getting angry and raising your voice can be OK. It's not the only way to communicate with your children, but it certainly can signal that they've crossed a line.

So now, like my dad, I get angry, sometimes yell - and sometimes hold my tongue. But either way, I try to let the mood pass quickly into something happy.

It's not hard for Jack to follow. He wears his feelings on his face, and I can see when the shadows clear out. Matthew is harder to read. I can't tell if he's holding something in, or wondering what happens when the sun burns out.

At Matthew's next soccer clinic, I didn't listen to the parenting experts, and I didn't meet the coach's anger with pent-up anger of my own. I just listened.

As usual, Matthew needed an extra push to focus on a drill. But when the instructor shouted directions, I could now detect, beneath his impatience, his love and enthusiasm.

My son certainly heard it. After practice, Matthew was still smiling.

If he could move on, so could I.


Did you make pancakes on Sundays? Or drive cross country together?

Tweet your favorite dad memory to us @PhillyInquirer using the hashtag #daddy-o, and a selection will appear on Inquirer.com this weekend.


Joel Berg is a freelance writer based in York, Pa.


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