Giles Coren on fathers (him) and sons (Sam, aged five). This month: crying foul
His latest communiqué from the frontline of fatherhood explores why fair play triumphs over foul
we’re playing football in the park: Sam, his seven-yearold sister, Kitty, and me. Kitty doesn’t really want to, she’d rather read a book or walk round and round in circles, sucking her thumb and thinking about how she is going to kill both her parents and her brother without the plod catching on. But he’s been nagging so much to play that she says OK.
To be nice, Kitty offers to go in goal so that Sam can be Lionel Messi (he’s in his Barcelona shirt).
Sam throws back his head, closes his eyes and says, “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!!”
I mean. The fuck?
“Sam?” I say. “What’s wrong?”
“Waaaaaaaahhh!!!” He replies.
So I go over and kneel down in front of him to be at his eye level — in accordance with the practice laid down in the Soppy Millennial Parent’s Guide to Debasing Yourself Completely at the Behest of your Fuckhead Toddler (Vol 3, Talking to the Little Cunt) — and I ask him to try and say what he wants in actual words.
“I wanted to be goalie!” He wails.
So I explain that in a situation like this, the thing to do is simply to say, “Actually, Kitty, can I go in goal, please?” And not just to default immediately to the crying and screaming, like he does, for example, when I turn on the television so he can watch CBeebies after breakfast but it momentarily plays a few seconds of the cricket I had been watching the
night before (“Waaaaaaaah! I don’t want to watch cricket! Waaaaaaaahhh!!!”), or we are out of Cheerios in the morning (“But you promised me! Waaaaaaaah! You’re a LIAR! Waaaaaaaahhh!!!”), or, really, anything.
So then Sam goes in goal. He makes himself big, arms out, like a professional keeper awaiting a penalty kick and starts taunting Kitty, “You’re never gonna score! You’re rubbish! Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyaaaah!”
So then Kitty, thumb still in mouth, walks slowly up to the small, orange football and gives it a sulky little kick. It rolls very, very slowly across the damp grass towards Sam, then past him, very slowly — Sam looking down at it all the time — and into the goal we have made with our jerseys.
Kitty takes her thumb out of her mouth and asks, “Is that a goal, then?”
“Waaaaaaaahhh!!!” says Sam. “She cheeeeeeeated!”
“She didn’t cheat,” I say. “She just kicked the ball into the goal. You could have saved it if you’d wanted to.”
“Waaaaaaaahhh!!!” says Sam, lying down on the damp, dog-shitty grass. “You’re a LIAR!!! Waaaaaaaaaahhh!!!”
And then he cries and cries and cries. Kitty shrugs and walks off, sucking her thumb.
And I am left there, once again, trying to deal with the fact that my beautiful son, this tall, strong, golden-haired, soft-cheeked boy with the immaculate cover drive, who is learning to read so nicely and loves his mum and dad and is into football cards and Bible stories and fried calamari and who I love so very, very much… is a fucking wuss.
Is that an OK thing to say in 2018? I worry that it is not. That it will be taken for sexism or homophobia. But that is not what it is. It has nothing to do with either of those things. My girl doesn’t cry really ever. Unless she cuts herself deeply while torturing frogs with a Stanley knife. And she’s a girl. And I see no correlation in the wider world between being gay and a tendency to throw a massive teary fucking fit over the smallest thing.
I’m not calling him “girly” or “gay”. I’m just saying that he is a wuss. A big fucking jessie. A soppy git. When faced with even the remotest — often completely imagined — setback, he does not spend even a second in rational thought or measured response. He just throws himself to the ground and cries.
And that is just shit. And is no way for a man to behave. Or a woman. But we are dealing with men here, fathers and sons.
So what do I say? I feel the impulse to tell him to “be a man” or a “big strong boy” because that is language he understands. But I’ve just said it is not about gender, so then I can’t go making meaningless equivocations between masculinity and emotional resilience that I don’t believe in, can I?
Should I beat it out of him? Does that even work? My own dad smacked the shit out of me as a kid — in anger, as a punishment for small crimes such as rattling my cutlery at the table or giving him backchat, rather than to correct any perceived wussery — and the result has been that in adulthood I fear no one. Because nobody will ever do to me what he did. And even if they do, or threaten to, they will not be twice my size and three times my weight (which would mean they were a rhino, which I probably would be scared of). And that lack of fear has got me quite a long way. And I am glad of it.
Except that I am miserable. For the very same reason that I am fearless. Because my trust in the safety of home and the existence of places where no one can hurt you and love is unconditional was shattered a very long time ago.
Maybe that is how it is for all tough people?
So I won’t be smacking him, no. I am not going to make myself into the monster he survived to become the man he is now. That is a sacrifice I am not prepared to make, even for him.
I was still thinking about all this later that same day when we sat down to watch a World Cup game together, Sam nuzzled comfily into my chest, and a player on one side went to ground after barely a touch on the hip from another guy’s hip. Went to ground clutching his face and screaming. Then looked up when nobody took any notice and pursued the referee, weeping and remonstrating, his arms stretched out in a gesture of disbelief at the world’s injustice — so that one couldn’t tell if it was the pain of the imagined injury or rage at the perceived injustice that was bringing forth the tears — until eventually the ref stopped, and turned to the guy, and showed him a yellow card. I wondered if maybe Sam had learned anything from this.
“Did you see what happened there?” I asked him.
“Yes,” said Sam. “The man got a foul and he was crying and crying.”
“And do you think he was really injured?”
“Yes, because he was crying and crying!”
“So why did the referee give him a yellow card then?”
Sam thought for a bit. And then said:
“Because he wasn’t his daddy.”
When faced with the remotest setback, Sam does not spend even a second in rational thought or measured response. He just throws himself to the ground and cries