Thanks to a strong cocktail of ignorance and a refusal to accept my physical decline, I am currently locked in a non-negotiable contract that will 100% ended up having to give my 9-year-old son $ 1,000.
Here’s a short version: Three years ago, I told my son I would give him that amount if he beat me in the race. We’ve been racing ever since.
I did this because I thought it was funny. I did this because I’m an idiot. It was a journey and I learned a lot. About being a dad. About what it feels like to realize that your body is falling apart into a pile of ashes and dust.
Now for the long version.
The year was 2019. My then 6-year-old son, obsessed with Pokémon cards, was desperately trying to make money to buy packages from the local Kmart. This clearly represented a kind of learning opportunity, but my wife and I did not know how to proceed. Was he too young for pocket money? Is the supplement at all a good idea for kids today? We weren’t sure.
I had a “moment of clarity”. What would it be like, I said, for our two sons to “earn” money if they set brave goals, fight and then eventually achieve them? Any goal was acceptable: academic, athletic, artistic. As long as the chase pushed the boundaries, it was worth the reward. It was a system designed to teach resilience, the importance of goal setting, hard work – all those good things.
Great idea, my wife agreed. Let’s do it.
We have built a rough reward system that works at a high level. If the task was easy to accomplish, the reward was less. At age 6, he earned $ 5, for example, because he taught himself to write his favorite word, “dragon”. A month later, after a week of training, he earned $ 20 for descending the trampoline. Very impressive, I thought. Magnificent parenting. I’m great, baby.
But soon my son asked me a question that has haunted me ever since.
“How much if I beat you in the race, Dad?”
Some context here. My son is fast. He was always fast. He learned to walk at 10 months, and a month later he could even run. correctly run. Friends, neighbors, strangers in the park would comment, “He’s fast, isn’t he?” “He’s really coordinated.”
I, shining with pride: “He got it from his dad.”
More context. I’m also fast. at least me was fast. In a childhood filled with impromptu races, I don’t remember losing a sprint once. In high school, I became a sports champion after winning the 100 meters, 200 meters, high jump i long jump
That was a long time ago. I’m 40 now, and I’m still in decent shape – albeit less explosive with my right knee butt. But in my imagination, I am still that 15-year-old kid, who passes by competitors like a Scottish gazelle.
“Dad, how much?”
“$ 1,000,” I replied. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you ever beat me in a race. You’ll never beat me. Never. I’ll crawl from my deathbed to beat you.”
His eyes lit up.
“$ 1,000?” He whispered, almost to himself, trying to decipher this impossible number with childish amazement. Or calculate how many Pokémon booster packs you would get.
“That’s right,” I said, again.
“A thousand dollars.”
I thought — he hoped, he dreamed — that he might forget our little deal. He did not forget.
In the meantime, my son was negotiating the race with my wife, his mother. One with slightly lower stakes, $ 20.
And thank God for that. A month later, just before bathing, my son challenged my wife to an official race. She’s not exactly a sprinter, but she fought. In the last 10 meters my son dropped the hammer. He cruised to victory. At the age of 6, he was the second fastest person in our house.
I will never forget what happened next. He took a $ 20 bill from my wife and neatly folded it into his little dinosaur wallet. He turned and pointed a tiny, determined finger at me.
We have fought regularly over the years, according to loosely understood rules. First, the distance had to be agreed in advance. Secondly, it should have been understood on both sides that this was a real race for $ 1,000. He could not use fraud or fly away without prior warning and claims he beat me. Third, it had to be a sprint. It can’t be like a half marathon or anything like that – we’re talking 50 to 100 meters here.
I was 37 when I agreed to this deal, still a lot of juice in my glutes. I broke it for years. I just ran forward, giving him the look of being closer than he thought. I wanted him to have something to strive for, a reason to keep pushing.
And it worked. My son is skinny and tanned with leg clips. He is absolutely fast. He lives every second of his life as if he were on a Ninja Warrior, and his brown hair flutters as he shifts from the kitchen to the garden and back. I think that this challenge in some way played a role in its development. I remember one day coaching his football team and challenging me to a race after training. His teammates joined. I won, but my son was second at a considerable distance. No one else could follow him.
Then, a little over a month ago, my son turned 9 years old. I don’t know how, but he’s grown. We went for a 5 mile (3 mile) run down one of the trails near our house and I noticed a difference. His steps were more purposeful, more coordinated. It seemed that he could effortlessly keep up the pace he was not capable of before.
I didn’t think anything about it. We haven’t raced in over six months. I couldn’t even remember the last time mentioned $ 1,000. I was sure. No reason to worry.
Then a week ago, after being hit on the football field, he dropped a bomb.
“Let’s race,” he said.
“For $ 1,000?”
“Yes, for $ 1,000.”
“I’ll blow you. You know that, don’t you?”
“Maybe. But I want to try.”
We’re on our way
We set it up. Serious work. His friend was counting down. I decided I wanted to teach him a lesson. I would go at full strength, at full speed. Show him how far he was from defeating his old man.
Bang. We’re on our way.
I sprinted as fast as I could. Usually it meant separating from my son with relative ease. Not this time. Halfway through the race I looked back to see how far ahead I was. This time my son was not behind me, he was next to me.
A literal nightmare scenario.
When the hell did he get here so fast? I tried to speed up, but I couldn’t – I was already blowing the seal, nothing was left in the tank. I panicked. This little bastard could actually beat me.
In the end, I succeeded. Barely. In the 70-meter sprint, I beat him maybe half a meter? That is what I ran at full speed, without mercy.
I looked at my own son in disbelief. How did that happen? He’s just a kid. A 9-year-old kid who almost beat me in a pedestrian race. What the hell happened to me? Was he much faster or was I slower? It had to be a combination of both.
Then I looked down and noticed: He was not wearing shoes. He ran barefoot the whole time. My son almost beat me in a shoeless race.
What would have happened if he had put on his sneakers again? I do not know. I don’t want to know.
On some level, I knew it was inevitable. I knew my son would be faster while I was slower. That the lines drawn on this chart will one day cross, but this race – this hellish race – drew double blind spots in my parental psyche.
First, the refusal to accept the teeth of old age. There is a difference between knowing that your body is slowly decaying and indeed understanding. That is the reason why drunk boxers retire due to the “last fight”. In our minds we are always at the peak of our powers. At our absolute peak.
The second part of this paradox: It is almost impossible really imagine our children growing up, aging in the same way that everyone ages. In my mind I am still the same teenager, galloping past everyone at speed. And my son is frozen in my imagination. He will always be my little son, a 6-year-old who spends all weekends teaching himself to switch to the trampoline.
Everyone is getting older all the time. This race is a physical manifestation of that great truth. Yesterday I rocked my son to sleep in the dead of night, today he almost beat me in the 70 meter sprint. Children are a living reminder of the passage of time. And our own mortality.
But today, my inevitable defeat seems even more inevitable. I thought I had a few more years. I probably have a couple of months. Tops.
Now my thoughts are focused on what I will do when he wins.
I have to give him the money, right? That seems clear. But should I give him $ 100 to spend in cash, and put the remaining $ 900 into some kind of fund he will get when he turns 16? It was my first instinct, but it’s pathetic. Too “daddy’s move”.
My other instinct says “just give him the money.” Give him every penny. Let him put $ 1,000 in his little dinosaur wallet and let the chips fall where they can. Whether he donates it to charity or gives it to Minecraft skins is his choice. Maybe this will be a story he tells his children, another one of those “teaching moments”.
Because, after all, all I want is for my son – my wild, fast son – to learn to live with the consequences of his own choices.
Just like his dear old dad.