I knew I had a problem when I got kicked out of a basketball game played in my own driveway. It was my 5-year-old son who ejected me. I didn't think I'd acted all that badly. Compared with some of the fathers I've seen on the news committing assault and battery at their kids' flag-football games, I was innocent. But after that day on the driveway, I knew I had to change. Because it has to be some kind of warning sign when you start justifying your behavior by comparing it favorably to that of criminals.
My son and I have been playing long games of one-on-one in our driveway. It works like this: We each take on the identity of one of our favorite basketball teams. We announce starting lineups, provide our own play-by-play account of the game, and when something really dramatic happens, we simulate the sound of 18,000 fans cheering wildly. We sometimes act out slow-motion replays of critical bits of action.
Or to be more precise, I do all of these things. My son mostly stands there looking slightly embarrassed.
Thus, one day, the 1991 Chicago Bulls (me) were trying to mount a comeback against the Briargate Primary School Tigers (my son). The referee (me) had just called a foul and the television announcer (again, me) was discussing the importance of the upcoming free throws, when my son spoke up:
"Dad, can I just play by myself for a while?"
I knew it wasn't so much a question as it was a plea. And that's when I saw that I was becoming an overinvolved father.
That would make me just the latest to succumb to a disorder that seems to be running unchecked. There is today an epidemic of dads who won't let go – helicopter fathers, some call them, because they're always hovering. They try too hard, care too much, fret incessantly. You see these guys in a frenzy of parental concern, building backyard batting cages for their kids, hiring tutors and coaches, second-guessing teachers, or enrolling them in placekickers school when they're 9.
There was a time when one of the worst things you could say about a father was that he was distant and aloof, that he was never there for his kid. But my generation, having become fathers, seems bent on guaranteeing that we'll never be accused of not having time for our kids. We'll never miss a school play or a T-ball game, never let our kids navigate a single experience alone.
I never thought I was an overinvolved father, but that game of driveway hoops was not the first time my son had sent me away. Just the week before, he had cut short a game of catch we'd been playing in the backyard, telling me that he wanted to "practice his home runs."
I'd had to go inside and watch from the kitchen window. He was trotting around an imaginary set of bases and pretending to fist-bump an imaginary third-base coach as he headed for home. And I was thinking, "Why can't he fist-bump me?"
Before I became a father, I wouldn't have guessed that I had this sort of behavior in me. But two things happened to me after my son arrived.
First, I found out how much fun a kid can be. Being a dad turned out to be a great excuse for acting like a child: Wiffle ball and cartoons had come back into my life, and I was delighted.
But I learned a second lesson, too: that a first-time father, without really being aware of it, often turns into a bundle of anxieties. There is no feeling of vulnerability quite like being totally devoted to a child. Stunned to find myself so ridiculously blessed, I became sure that I would somehow mess it up.
The overinvolved dad clings to his kid not just because it's fun, but because he's afraid to let go.
I was fortunate. I hadn't reached the point of some of the most clueless fathers: I was not a neighborhood joke, and the police had never been called in. But then again my kid was just 5. I hadn't really had a full chance to make a fool of myself.
Of all the ways men mess up, being too involved with their kids might seem like a relatively harmless transgression. But what bothers me is that I suspect it's a pretty short leap from my overbearing driveway hoops behavior to the really awful stuff. Remember the guy who clobbered the 13-year-old linebacker because the linebacker clobbered the guy's kid? Or the guy who pulled a gun on his kid's hockey coach? Maybe those guys are just extreme examples of hyperinvolved dads.
Which is why I've resolved to start acting more like a dad and less like a "dadolescent." My son deserves a little room to grow on his own. The next time I want to play basketball, I'm going to the gym. I know some guys my own age there and we can get up a game.
But I don't think they'll go for me announcing the starting lineups.