Monday, 23 July 2012

The Fine Art of Meddling

Want to build a cubby house with your kids? Here’s how not to do it.
Many moons ago, I found myself building a “cubby-house” (or more likely -- knowing my lack of manly carpenteering skills -- a lean-to) for my oldest son. Only problem was, it shouldn’t have been me building it. Let me explain…

I’d been reading about how pre-teen boys need to engage with the outdoors and some have the instinct to build shelters to prove to themselves they could fend for themselves. It all sounded rather plausible and when my son came to me asking if he could build a “cubby” in the backyard, because his friend Nathan had just done that in his, I was all for it.

We went to see a friend of mine, a carpenter, who kindly made some suggestions about materials and even gave my son (and me!) a crash course in building and construction. We assembled the materials and went home to build it.

I know what you’re thinking: “What a great Dad! Giving his son space and encouragement to do it. I wish I had a Dad like that.”

… actually, you shouldn’t wish that.

From the start, this project was undermined by two tendencies that I battle constantly:
  • the need to be seen as a great Dad – particularly by my kids – and
  • the need to teach things … actually, let’s call that last one what it really is: the need to micromanage (to direct or control in a detailed, often meddlesome manner).
Things first came unstuck when I told him, no you can’t build it where you want to, you have to build it where I want you to. At first pass, this might sound like a good thing, and – look – if he had wanted to build it on the roof of our house or nail it to my wife’s car, then fair enough, I should say no. But he simply wanted to attach it to the back fence. I didn’t like that and said, no build it over here.

The next problem came when I stayed outside to assist him instead of going into the house and leaving him to it. Now, my excuse was he asked me to stay, specifically to hold the beams while he hammered. Again, good dadship to be there for him? But alack! and alas! I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut.

When he said “Dad I can’t do this!!”, struggling to get the nail into the wood, I could have said, “Yes you can; keep at it, champ.” Sometimes I do encourage him this way. But not this time. I could have said, “This wood is pretty hard, it’s probably not suited to this. Do you want to finish what we can with the other pieces then go out and find another piece that’s easier to work with?” That would have allowed him to stay in control and saved face for him. I could have said that but I didn’t.

I said, “Let me have a try.”

Those 5 little words resulted ultimately in the photo I have of the occasion. Where is my son in that photo? Nowhere. (My other son took it). Oldest Son had by that time gone inside, frustrated. After twenty minutes of rising tension about how to do things, he’d thrown a mild tantrum and given up. Because whereas I thought I was communicating “I’m here for you”, what he heard was “You can’t do it, give a real man the hammer.”

As usual from little things, big things grow. From my small action – well TWO small actions – discouragement flourished.

The results: four planks of wood loosely nailed together in my backyard and sitting there for months like that, a boy who lost interest in building things and a Dad still kicking himself.

You might say all sorts of things like, “The boy should have had thicker skin” and such. I seriously don’t think this one was about him being oversensitive. I think I royally screwed up.

The lessons for me were twofold:
  1. be careful not to communicate to a boy that he can’t do ‘it’ [there are so many subtle and not-so subtle ways we can do this]
  2. be careful not to discourage a kid from a passion of theirs in any way
In this case, there was a fine line between directing and discouraging, between placing boundaries around his activity and meddling with it. Knowing my son, what he needed and desired from me was my company, my pride in him, my encouragement.

Sometimes kids need to be allowed to make a mess of our backyards, to risk putting a crack in our fence palings, and even to try-and-fail without being shown “how to do it properly” (especially by someone like me ... who really didn’t know how to do it anyway.)


  1. Pete, the way you put your thoughts down is awesome!! The stories and lessons you share so transparently are inspiring.

  2. Thanks, Georgi. Some good should come out of my butt-headedness. :)