Writings by Cole Huffman

Thwack Moments: A Meditation on Fathering and Sonning

THWACK is a pleasing sound for the baseball fan. That percussive clap when Louisville Slugger meets fastball, sending it deep. Then there’s the THWACK of your child’s head slammed against an object. Not pleasing.

My sons are 10 years apart, presently 17 and 7. I’ll refer to them by their ages. The older was born from me by lineage, the younger to me by adoption. Last night we had guests over for dinner. Transitioning to party games after dessert, I called to my older son to join us. He was in his younger brother’s room wrestling him, showing affection in the way of boys. 17 came into the living room with 7 swung over his shoulder—then promptly slammed him down on a leather couch.


17 suplexed 7 with such force I was sure my younger son’s head made contact with the frame of the couch underneath the cushion. Turned out the sound was worse than the injury, but 7 immediately started crying and holding his head. 17 sat down on the couch with a shucks grin—That couldn’t have hurt that much! My do-you-know-what-a-concussion-is scolding promptly wiped it off his face.

Because 17 is my firstborn he carries more wounds than my other children for my learning to be a father on him. I had rigid expectations when I was new to parenting so at times when he was younger I disciplined him too hard, blew up at him for childish impulsiveness. Adding to these violations of Ephesians 6:4, I pushed him away from his bent, which is music, to my bent which is sports. Like catching a cancer early we rectified that; I repented and he forgave. But still, such as all that leaves a mark, and when corrective words steamed at him from my mouth last night, I saw in the look on his face what I perceived to be a scintilla of lingering distrust that Dad can ever really be fair to him when upset with him, though I know—and his mom confirms it—I am not in this who I once was to him. And yet I misperceived his look.

To spare 17 and our guests further awkwardness—and to get ice for 7—we retreated to the kitchen where I told 17, in what the kids know as “my emphatic tone” (I’m yelling in my heart), never do that to 7 again. I meant to correct only the forcefulness of his play and the thoughtlessness of his force, but it likely sounded to him like I didn’t want him roughhousing his brother anymore. I knew 17 wasn’t trying to harm 7. But did 17 know that I knew?

Of course the questions under that question are: Does my son truly trust me? Does he get me? Does he understand my flaws may be his too someday? Does he appreciate the effort I’ve put into correcting in myself what’s hurt him in the past? Fatherhood has some places where the footing is unsure but still we soldier on.

In the kitchen 17 leaned his lanky frame against a counter and stared at the floor. I took some trash to the recycle bin in the garage then reappeared to tell him I wasn’t mad at him—yes, he knew—and hug him, which he received. Still looking at the floor he said he was mad at himself.


His words instantly registered with me, and deeply. It was a fatherhood epiphany. It filled me with pride for him, made me want to hug him again. If my son can get mad at himself for thinking he hurt his brother he can realize his dad gets mad at himself too for thinking he’s hurt his son. Coming to that realization—which is its own kind of THWACK moment—evidences the slow formation of empathy, surely an overlooked component of compassionate manhood. I cheer this development in my oldest boy livelier than an Irish bar toasts Guinness brewmasters on St. Patrick’s Day.

My favorite definition of empathy is Joe Aldrich’s, that it’s the ability to become a naturalized citizen of another’s world. Fathers and sons can seem to each other at times to inhabit different planets. But empathy shared makes a father and son—this father and son—less incomprehensible to each other as we age.

It makes us more like two sinners on equal footing. More like brothers. Father and son need the very same grace extended to each other. The son has graduated from childhood when he gets this. The father has matured when he gives it.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 6:34 PM
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