How “Dad Time” With My Sons Taught Us All an Important Lesson
February 2, 2023
Anyone involved in any counseling knows about the word, “patterns.”
These are the repeated actions, circumstances, and decisions that are usually connected to similar events, often something that deeply affected you and made your reaction the same each time. You learn how to cope, survive, and manage the situation the best way you can. Those patterns become a part of you. They get hard-wired into you and when similar situations or events arise; the pattern kicks in.
And sometimes those patterns have consequences.
The day after the atmospheric river of storms in Southern California, when the San Gabriel Valley was drying out, my sons and I started our trip to their school. It’s not a long one. We don’t have a typical Los Angeles commute. We can get there in about 10-15 minutes—on the freeway, of course. The mountains are nearby and form the backdrop of the drive to school.
“Dad time” — time when fathers usually take a moment to tell their children something important and share some key information. My sons are little, 11, 9, 6 and thank God, they live a very sheltered and innocent life. They do not have personal gadgets (though they have access to computers for school and limited entertainment) and they do not have social media accounts. We replace all that with sports and activities to get them out and in the world, interacting with other families, making connections with all types of folks, having fun, and trying to do their best for themselves. For this drive, I decided it was “dad time” for a crucial lesson for elementary and middle schoolers.
I asked about a classmate of one son. “How’s ‘so and so’ doing? You know he’s small, wears glasses, is polite, and nice. In the schools that I went to growing up, people would have picked on him and bullied him. But he’s a good kid. And you should be friends with him (they are).”
I then asked each of them who they sit with during their free time. They gave me the names of the boys they sit with. And I asked them to imagine a bigger kid, or any kid, who was picking on or wanted to hurt their friend. That the right thing to do is to get in front of them and say, “if you pick on him then you have to go through me.” Even if they aren’t big, they can still step in and defend their friend. I certainly want my sons to be protectors and defenders of the oppressed. I pray God makes that part of how they express their faith in Him.
The problem is that bullies are often bigger.
My boys are “green” so I offered a strategy: You want to “stun and run” if the kid is bigger than you and you can’t win the fight. First, try a swift, forceful punch in the gut. If that doesn’t slow them down, then you kick them in the balls. You must exit immediately, go find a teacher or security guard, and if you are out and about, you got to get home as fast as you can. If it is on the baseball field, then you have to find an adult you trust immediately.
This is the hard part. For me, at least. Why do I know this?
I grew up in the crack era in Brooklyn, New York. For those that understand, I literally need to say nothing further.
For others, I would like you to imagine a predatory landscape, not unlike war-torn areas. Bullets flew every night, and junkies and burnt-out buildings were everywhere. Rundown was the norm. In that predatory landscape, my parents protected us. In school, though, the rules were different. Langston Hughes best expresses the rules in “Let America Be America Again,” where he says, “the same old stupid plan/ Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
I had to fight nearly every day when I was their age. I was bigger and could fight and had developed a reputation of being a tough kid in a tough era in a tough time. But I didn’t want to be like that. I wasn’t seeking fights. I was acting under the premise that I shared with my sons the ultimate maxim of when to fight: “Never start a fight, but always win the fight.”
Back in the 1980s, I never lost a fight. I’d get jumped and handle it all. I established myself and then defended other victims. So, that made others try to band up and attack me. I still won.
But I thank God with deep sincerity that it is not the lifestyle my sons have now. Now they go on a leisurely drive to a Muslim school that is as nurturing of an environment that I could have found. They will not have to deal with bullies and fighting every day, or crack vials littered in the school playground every morning.
Today kids still pick on you – and it is still unsafe in some ways – just different. Also, they witness conflict at certain levels in all aspects of society and life. They witness arguments and tension between their parents. They hear about violent school shootings and know about war and the places in the world currently embroiled in conflict like Palestine, Syria, and we talk about the places in the world where there are active protests, like Bolivia, Brazil, China, Ghana, among others. Their world is different, but we still seem to, as adults, be living the same old, “the same old stupid plan/ Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak,” that we learned about when we were young.
I dropped them off at school. Made sure they had their lunch with the lamb roast sandwiches from lamb I made the night before and made sure they had their water. Pulling away, with the mountains to the other side of me now and more directly in my view, I realized something. Right now, I feel like there need to be five Ibrahims … I need one that tends to my boys, takes them out to the park, keeps them active, makes sure they do their homework, listens to their crazy stories, and just plays with them … I need another one that is locked up in my study reading, writing, researching, taking my crazy ideas that no one is paying for from idea to completion … and finally, I need another one that is locked in on “paid” work and delivering the brilliance that I can deliver when there are minimal to no distractions … maybe a fourth Ibrahim would be all about self-care: prayer and worship, eating right, sleeping right, and working out, etc. The fifth would just sit on the couch and relax. It is a shame. There is so much to be done. So much to do. It is not admitting weakness to say that it is a lot and I often, as a father and a man of faith trying to raise faithful sons, feel that things are hard.
It was here that I saw my pattern. I realized that when things get tough, with my relationships, with my work, with anything, I will shut down and sometimes I want to run away. I want to distract and distance myself. Like I said, patterns can have consequences. It has meant that when my wife and I are not communicating well; I want to run. It means that when a job is not going well; I want to get out of it. It means that I prefer to be alone more than people realize. And it can also seem like I do not care, am callous, and it means that sometimes I do not care and I am callous. I have done things that have hurt those around me and pushed them away.
Where did I get this pattern when I was so fearless as a child when faced with fear?
As I got older, the test from my peers became more dangerous. Sometimes they had a knife, sometimes even a gun – I learned to deescalate by fleeing – but it is deeper than that. I never wanted to participate in that predatory landscape at all. Fighting back and running away were all part of the same pattern. At my core, I would not attack or seek to hurt anyone, ever. Life forced me to be in situations I would never want my sons to be in.
Thankfully, at this stage, they are already starting out with less conflict as they are developing and defining their identity. At some point in life, they will learn an actual fighting style that will give them the relevant tools to face their fears if ever physically challenged.
They still live in a predatory landscape. The web, meta-verse, AI world they are growing up in has perils that aren’t even fully known. But these are their challenges. I cannot fight their battles for them, but I can give them the basic tools to fight on all levels. If this new world is an assault on their attention, their appetites, their desires, and marauds their sense of value and self-worth, then I need to work with them to devise strategies to overcome those challenges. Especially, I need to ensure that their connection to the sacred, to the Creator of the Universe, is an unassailable bond that will survive the test of time.
Another part of my job now is to get out of their way, let them grow and experience, give them crucial moments of “dad time” to give them a heads up and, primarily, to tell them I love them every day.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an Interfaith America Senior Fellow. He serves as a Senior Fellow with New Yorkers for Clean Power, serves on the NYS Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land and is the author of “Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.”
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