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On a bonding trip with my son, the simplest parenting advice works

His mom’s the person he usually opens up to, but our father-son getaway brings unexpected closeness.

Gracia Lam

Wade into the water

Wade into the water, children

Wade into the water

God’s gonna trouble the wa-ter.

From the back of the car, my 10-year-old son trills the spiritual he learned in music class, his boyish voice undulating “children,” his tongue a geyser of facts about the history behind the lyrics. (They might refer to how fleeing slaves escaped in waterways to throw pursuing bloodhounds off the scent.)

Getting your child to recount his school day can be as hopeless a task as urging Donald Trump to be polite. I owe this burst of revelation to our boys’ weekend away in New Hampshire. My wife is on a midwinter trip to Martinique with a friend who’s celebrating the end of chemo. It’s been four months since my own cancer surgery, and a getaway seemed an apt reward for Kieran, who slept in our bed the night before my operation, my own flesh-and-blood security blanket. So we’ve come to the Granite State one week before the presidential primary, the candidates’ signs thick as pine groves.

Perhaps it’s the fact that we’ve brought our golden retriever mix along for the trip (it’s a dog-friendly hotel). Or maybe that, with Mom gone, Dad’s the only one to talk to; Natalie’s not exactly gifted at discussion beyond barks, whimpers, and the occasional growl. But I think it has to do with the power of place to fire communication. Kieran has inherited my love of hotels — the adventure of a new bedroom, a restaurant to cook for you, an indoor pool. He delights in the stuffed moose doll in our room (“It’s so soft”) and the mini whoopie pies handed out at the front desk. Being away from familiar surroundings encourages unfamiliar intimacy as we revel in things we both love.


My wife, truth be told, has always had a certain empathetic connection with our son that doesn’t come as easily to me. I think I bring other strengths to parenting — setting boundaries, for example — but when Kieran wants to open up, it’s more often to her. Now, in this exotic setting, I hear what he’s learning in music class, and then some. We chat over dinners and breakfasts about what his friends are up to, and we exchange food opinions. (We agree that the warmed dinner rolls dipped in olive oil rock.) We take Natalie on a long walk around the quaint town that I covered as a cub reporter 35 years ago, even stopping for a quick look at my bachelor-days apartment. And we do what fathers and sons have done since Adam and Abel — roughhouse, whether it’s on the beds in our room or in the pool, Kieran’s unquestioned favorite spot in any lodging.


At one point, steaming in the hot tub while Kieran frolics in the adjacent pool, I chat with a forty-ish mother of three who says her oldest son, at 15, still loves hanging out with her. How do you get a teenager to want to be within a mile of his parent? I wonder aloud.

Just do things they enjoy and “have fun with them,” she tells me. I reflect on how I’ve come to learn the joy of shelving my own work or recreational preferences to be tutored in the mysterious rituals of Minecraft, of getting jumped on by 70 pounds of boy with an additional 40 pounds of dog piling on, of soaking for two hours in a hotel pool when I’d rather be exploring local scenery and museums.


As I sit in the tub watching Kieran, I muse that this is why those gifted doctors and nurses saved my life last September — to buy me time to savor my boy becoming a man. But I only muse for a moment.

Kieran summons me back into the pool.

Rich Barlow is a writer in Belmont. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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