“Good morning, Phyllis,” the man wrote. “I’m Tim, a stranger to you from Australia. I felt it was worth a chance to reach out to you. I woke up lost, started Googling and by chance found your article on connecting with boys.” He told me he was a 30-year-old single parent to an 11-year-old, and that he felt like he was failing as a father. I did the math and realized he was still a teen when he became a parent.
I wasn’t sure where this was headed. “Parenting is hard,” I wrote in my initial response. “I’d be happy to help if I can.” Tim responded right away. “I feel insecure about my connection with my son. I just don’t know how to be, or what to do next as a dad and a friend. After last night, I just want to cry. I’m questioning myself and don’t know where to go from here.”
I didn’t ask him what had happened. “If you had a fight or regret how you behaved, tell him,” I said. “Just be real. If something threw you, it’s okay to say that you wish you had handled it differently. You’ll show him it’s okay to make mistakes.”
That’s when Tim shared the rest of his story. The night before, he had learned that his son had stolen money from a relative’s home. “I’ve never hit or smacked my child,” he said. “But I went into a rage and walked toward my son screaming like he’d never heard before, demanding answers. I’ve never seen so much fear in my son’s eyes, and it broke my heart. I said that he’d lost my trust. He begged for forgiveness, and he swore he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to me. After I got some air and was calmer, I told him I’d always love him.”
Tim told me he was disappointed in his son, but equally upset about losing control. “It sounds like you were able to recover a bit and talk afterward,” I said. I urged him to help his son figure out a way to make amends. The boy needed a path back to being a good kid. Parents need to reinforce values such as honesty, but they also need to teach children that life lessons don’t have to be life sentences.
Tim was still stuck. “How could this have happened?” he asked me. “My son isn’t privileged, but I try to show him right from wrong. We have plenty of one-on-one time, and we reflect on daily events, and we have an outdoor lounge that we sit on when we want to discuss problems.” His son, he told me, was exceptionally mature. “I treat him like he’s much older based on his understanding of life,” he said. “I often ask for his input because he’s my best friend, and this is my first time being a father. I’ve got no family for support, so I ask him to help me.”
That’s when I understood why Tim was so crushed. “Yes, he’s mature, but he’s still young and learning,” I said. I explained that his brain was still growing in every way, including morally, intellectually and ethically. “An 11-year-old is impulsive,” I told him. “Your son can make a bad choice and still be a wonderful person. But you need to let him be a kid. He can’t help you make the big, adult decisions.” Tim suddenly got it. “I often forget that he’s only 11,” he said. “I think my expectations are too high.”
I was struck by how Tim and his son both wanted the same things. To be trusted, loved and forgiven. To stay connected. Tim wanted this badly enough to reach across the ocean to a complete stranger. He felt isolated and alone, but I told him he was far from unique. He may have been a young, single dad in Australia, but he could have been a married mother in Massachusetts or a father of four in Maryland. I’ve yet to meet a parent who’s never lost their temper or questioned themselves. Everyone needs the occasional reassurance that they’re raising a good person and haven’t botched the whole parenting thing.
When I told Tim his private struggles were universal, he was surprised and wanted to spread the word. “I’d really like it if this conversation and my thought process ended up helping others,” he said. He also asked to stay in touch with me. “I wouldn’t mind exchanging the odd message to let you know how we’re doing from here on,” he wrote. I knew he was seeking a safety net, and the request felt reasonable. In our increasingly fragmented world, I’ve learned to embrace the most improbable connections. At the same time, I wanted him to feel capable on his own.
“Sure,” I said, “But remember, you’ve got this.”
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda and the counselor at Sheridan School, a National School of Character in Washington, D.C. She also writes about parenting, counseling and education for The Washington Post. Phyllis is the author of the book “Middle School Matters” (forthcoming, Da Capo Press, 2019). She tweets @pfagell and blogs at www.phyllisfagell.com.