I Helped Encourage My Son’s Passions. He Taught Me How to Care More.

My kid cares a lot. And he's taught me to care more, too.

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Welcome to Great Moments in Parenting, a series in which fathers explain a parenting hurdle they faced and the unique way they overcame it. Here, Tom, a 49-year-old dad to a 12-year-old boy in Detroit, Michigan, talks about the moment his passion for giving back to the community finally rubbed off on his son and became something bigger than either of them.

I run a volunteer group in Detroit that cleans up abandoned playgrounds. My 12-year-old son, Mark, comes out with me to do that sometimes. We use power tools, weed whackers, and lawnmowers. He’s too young to use those things. So Mark’s task, usually, is to pick up trash. Somewhere along the line, he saw a YouTube video about cleaning up the oceans, so he put the two things together. He said, “Hey dad, we should go clean the oceans, instead of these playgrounds.”

I didn’t really have the heart to break it to him that we live in Michigan, and that the ocean is 800 miles away. But there is plenty of water around us — we have the Detroit River, which has water flowing through it. Three of the Great Lakes streams through it. So if you drop a piece of trash in the water in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that piece of trash will eventually flow past us on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s good ground to collect trash.

Mark wanted to get a boat to clean up that trash. I didn’t want to discourage him. It’s a great thing when your kids do volunteer work. I’ve never owned a boat, and I don’t know if I even know any people who have a boat. We decided to go on Craigslist and we bought a little boat, like a Zodiac, one of those somewhat inflatable boats.

We went down to the river and we didn’t have a trailer, so we actually had to actually lift it out of the van and drag it across the cement and get it in the water. It was quite comical. And then we had to put the motor on it. It was pretty funny. We got the boat in to the river. That was an experience, because the river flows at like six miles an hour, so if your boat doesn’t run, you could end up in Toledo, Ohio pretty quick. We decided we’d turn upriver in case the boat died and then we could just float back to where we started. Right away, within a couple of minutes, we found a waterski that had washed up on the shore. That was our first find. There was lots of trash. Lots, and lots, and lots of trash. — hundreds and hundreds of pieces.

I felt really proud of my son. He came up with this great idea, he showed enthusiasm. He sat on the front of the boat and picked the trash while I drive the boat. It didn’t take us long before we filled our little boat with trash. We wanted to go out for a couple of hours, but the boat was full within 45 minutes.

Now that we actually know what we’re doing, we got a bigger boat. So, now we have a Boston Whaler. We’re running these trash fishing contests. If you get the most trash, or the biggest and most unusual piece of trash, you win a trophy. Last year, we did a trash fishing ‘World Championship.’ The person who collected the most trash was crowned world champion, and that was my son Mark.

Usually, the community service work involved me dragging Mark to participate. So, when he showed some initiative, I absolutely wanted to make it happen, you know? I was really pleased. That’s the thing I’m most proud of: he had this idea. Every 12 year old has their moments. I think that’s what being a dad is. Sometimes there’s a little bit of fire in there, and, if you can pick up on it, you can really make your kid proud of themselves. One of my goals as a dad is just to get him to adulthood with his self-esteem intact. Getting him crowned ‘trash fishing world champion’ was one thing, but now, the goal for me as a dad is to make that championship to mean something. The bigger we can make trash fishing, the bigger his achievement becomes.

I’m really proud of him. It’s fun to see him lead me, in a way, you know? When your kid is born, you’re pushing them around places, dragging them to things and trying to make them do the right thing. So when they give it back it a little? I’m just proud of him.

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