Id been reading about how pre-teen boys need to engage with the outdoors. The article said that many pre-teen boys have the instinct to build shelters because of a masculine drive toward self-sufficiency, to subconsciously prove to themselves they could fend for themselves if they had to.

It all sounded rather plausible to me, and when my son came to me asking if he could build a “cubby” in the backyard, because his friend 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 what materials to use and even gave my son (and me!) a crash course in building and construction. We assembled the materials and went home to build it.

Now, I know what youre thinking: “Oorah! What a great Dad – giving his son space and encouragement to do it.” Well, dont think that. Youd be wrong in thinking that. If you did, that is.

From the start, this project was undermined by two of my worst tendencies:

– the need to be seen as a great Dad particularly by my kids (and you can see that very tendency already in this article);
– and the need to teach things.. or rather, the need to micromanage (to direct or control in a detailed, often meddlesome manner).

So. Heres the first step to follow if you really want to discourage a kid. Things began to come unstuck when I told my son, no you cant 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: if he had wanted to build it on the roof of our house, or nail it to his mums car I should say no. But he simply wanted to attach it to the back fence. No big deal, really, except I didnt like that and said, no build it over here instead.

This is an error a lot of us well-meaning Gen-X Dads make. We think that to be involved means to be immersed in our kids activities, or to hover above them making sure theyre “getting it right”. That aint involvement its meddling.

Heres the second step, if youre truly hell-bent on raining on a kids parade. Things got worse after he asked me to stay outside with him, specifically to hold the beams while he hammered. Nothing wrong with me staying around, you might think. But alack! and alas! I couldnt just be there and keep my big mouth shut.

When he had that moment that many kids have where he said “Dad I cant 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, its probably not suited to this job. Do you want to finish what we can with the other pieces then go out and find another piece thats 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 didnt.

I said, “Let me do it.”

Those four little words resulted ultimately in a photo I still have where I alone am hammering bits of wood together, and my son is nowhere be seen. (My other son is taking it). By this time hed gone inside, frustrated. After twenty minutes of rising tension about how to do things, of having no say in his own project, hed given up.

Where I thought I was communicating “Im here for you”, what he heard was “You cant 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”. I seriously dont think this situation was about him being oversensitive. I think I truly screwed up.

The lessons for me were twofold:
1. be careful not to communicate to a child that they cant do “it”;
2. be careful not to discourage a kid from a passion of theirs just because they dont do it the way you would . Who knows? They might even do it better!

Sometimes kids need to be allowed to make a mess of our backyards, put a crack in our fence palings, and even to try-and-fail without being shown “how to do it right”. Thankfully my sons forgiven and forgotten the entire event. But I havent forgotten the steps that got us into that situation. Nor the lessons I learned from it.