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Failing Fathers: A Love Story

John Denny
August08/ 2011

Maybe it takes a village to raise a child, but it took a couple of villages to raise this father.

I love being a dad to my three kids. But if they survive my failures as a father, it’s for two reasons – their mother, and the fact that we live near great Pittsburgh resources.

I had my biggest and best failures raising my first-born son. Here are some villages I found to help – and some you might be able to use:

Scouting Father’s Dishonor: Throughout my son’s career in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, I helped sell over 500 bags of popcorn, then delivered them on my own. I also helped him earn last place in the soapbox derby four times; it seems only kids with engineer fathers ever win. Despite me, he survived six tent-camping trips to Camp Independence at Heritage.

One afternoon at camp, I felt something brush my ankle, looked down and let out the loudest “Oh F!*$#aroo!” I ran screaming, knocking down half a dozen scouts. The scoutmaster made me apologize to the entire pack. Later, I was put in charge of the camping detail alongside another scout’s grandfather Walt, who had been scouting for 52 years.  So I didn’t worry at all until the coldest lake swimming test ever, when Walt jumped in and didn’t resurface. After a hospital examination he was fine – but I was alone in the woods with 12 eight year olds.  Somehow, through it all, my son and I actually had the best times.

Unbalanced: Teaching a child to ride a bike should not be as hard as teaching one how to drive.

Every spring, from 1st through 3rd grade, it was the same “We’re going to do it this year” ritual. “Peddle harder, steer straight, look straight ahead, no, I’m still holding on,” I would shout. (OK, that last was a big lie.) What Dad can’t teach his kid how to ride a bike? He was embarrassed in front of friends, and I could feel his pain, until he got it, just in time for 4th grade.

That situation must be even more challenging for parents of kids with special needs. Happily, in Pittsburgh there is Lose the Training Wheelscamp at the Children’s Institute, where camp instructors use adapted bikes.

Win One for the Flipper: Before my son turned into a very good football and basketball player, we tried baseball. We should have known this wasn’t his sport when our neighbor brought the kids home from his first practice with a fat lip.

At eight, he was playing in the Fox Chapel Little League Championship game (somehow). The field in O’Hara Township sits in a valley, while parents sit at the top of a hill. It was two outs, bottom of the last inning, bases loaded and we’re trailing by 2 runs. My son came up to bat. Classmates from the other team razzed him. I expected the usual grounder to first, and out we’d go. But he hit a fly ball over the first baseman’s head, giving our team the tying runs.

In a moment of absolute shock and exhilaration, I threw myself into a somersault down the steep hill. But I couldn’t stop.. I took out two players on my son’s team before smashing into the first-base line fence.

Later (somehow), I was asked to fill in as manager for a very big game when our best hitters were out. We were winning in the 4th inning. Then I made the two biggest mistakes a father/coach can make – I promised the entire team ice cream if we won, and I put my son in to pitch the last two innings. He had the slowest but most accurate pitch, which was hard for kids to hit. At the end of the 6th inning, we were tied and suddenly went into extra innings – a new rule for me. My pitching son started to melt, allowing run after run. Tears began to fall. My son felt pretty bad too. What to do?

I sent in his mother to pull him off the mound.

But we all got ice cream, and donuts, which saved the situation, and we stuck it out through Little League.

Loving Haiti: After my son announced a church youth group trip to Haiti, we responded as any good parents would: “You’re going where?” The State Department website deemed the place “too dangerous,” we pointed out, and this was before the most recent earthquake.

We experienced our first teenage rebellion. My son covered our house with “Haiti is Safe” signs — even the inside of the toilet seat cover.

Exhausted, my wife finally blurted out, “All right. You can go under one condition – your father goes with you.” I thought I was safe; no 13 year old wants to be seen with his embarrassing father.

My fears and assumptions were all misplaced. My son would be seen with me – and the trip was a life-changing experience. Pittsburgh-based Haiti H20 took us to the remote Cayman basin. We slept on cots in a cinder-block school room in a rural village. We made bread with the village women, played with kids, met with families in their one-room homes. We experienced poverty at its most extreme, and the best people. Trying to keep all the boys from sneaking peeks at village women bathing in the creek was the only real parenting problem for us in Haiti.

My son and daughter just returned to Haiti with my wife and stayed with two wonderful Pittsburghers, Ian and Lucy Rawson of the Hopital Albert Schweitzer. Ian’s parents, Larry and Gwen Mellon, are a Pittsburgh success story all their own, based on their life’s work in Haiti.

The big lesson for me, from all my failures: Get outside your comfort level. Do something extreme with your child. Expose them to others’ cultures and lives. Make sure you have other plans when your wife offers your services.

There are a lot more mistakes to follow. But if you’re going to fail as a parent, there is no better village to do it in than Pittsburgh.

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Photographs of John Denny copyright Brian Cohen

John Denny