You're an involved and attuned Dad who's provided top-notch schooling and limited-edition footwear. Your kids are smart and discerning, sneering at the Jonas Brothers and revering Johnny Cash. You couldn't be prouder, really. Until one day that parental pride takes a dark turn. It hits you suddenly, while you're driving carpool to surf camp or getting your ass handed to you in a Super Mario Galaxy matchup or watching your son IM with six girls simultaneously: You're jealous.
And, let's be honest, there's plenty to begrudge. Not only do your kids have a far sweeter setup than you had growing up—in the days when Atari ruled and easily accessible porn meant your sister's Judy Blume collection—but they also have it better than you do now. While you spend your after-work hours comparing tax-sheltered college funds and negotiating the Byzantine politics of private-school admissions, your progeny feast on a smorgasbord of awesome social, educational, and entertainment options. Your kids have multiplayer online games and the time to play them. They know the difference between sushi and sashimi, and they get the benefits of ordering omakase. Junior—God bless him—keeps getting smarter and savvier; he's effortlessly cool and young while you struggle to hang on, wincing from an Achilles tendon strained playing H-O-R-S-E and fighting the urge to sing along with "I Kissed a Girl" in your Passat wagon.
"It doesn't make much sense, but yeah, there's definitely envy," says Jason Avant, 40, founder and managing editor of the blog Dadcentric.com. A father of two in Encinitas, California, Avant has watched his 5-year-old, Lucas, become a badass in karate—which is all well and fine, except that Dad can't quite let go of the fact that he was once pretty good at martial arts himself. "I'm watching him getting better and better and realizing I'll never have that chance," Avant says. "It sounds silly, but I'm suddenly aware that I'll never be in 5-year-old shape again."
That may be the most common strain of paternal jealousy. Just as many mothers resent their daughters as they begin to fill out and attract sidelong glances, fathers are often hit with pangs of regret when their sons come into their own physically. Consider those all-too-intense Pony League dads, whose joy at watching their boys scramble around in pro gear is overwhelmed by the ache to suit up themselves. That paternal conflict is writ large in Friday Night Lights and the real-life case of Archie Manning—who exudes alpha-male pride at having sired three star football sons but can't help but betray a certain envy over Peyton's and Eli's Super Bowl successes.
Beyond athletics, many dads envy the sheer diversity of options and opportunities their offspring have. Whit Honea, the blogger behind Honea Express and the father of a 6-year-old, Atticus, and a 3-year-old, Zane, recently moved to a family-friendly community near Seattle that offers children's yoga and glassblowing. Glassblowing, Daddy! "These kids are like little artisans," he says. "Here they are living a life of arts and leisure, and I'm living a life of grindstone and stress."
It's no wonder jealousy festers among parents, who shoulder the logistical and financial burdens. As you strive to be more fun, giving, and understanding than your own authoritarian/unreliable/absent parents were, you're repaid with offspring who remind you daily they're more assured and more worldly than you've ever been.
This vein of envy isn't entirely new—it runs through the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and the ancient Cree legend of a dad who deserted his son on a rocky island for fear the boy's stepmother loved him a little too much. Or consider Robert Duvall's disciplinarian marine father in The Great Santini, who comes unglued after losing a game of hoops to his son. The modern dad may not be quite so bullheaded, but his jealousy is often just as acute—and perhaps more problematically, it's now enabled by what might be called the Juvenile Enrichment Complex: The routine childhood begins with music groups and deluxe indoor playgrounds and quickly advances into hip-hop classes and spy camp. Whereas our dads asked us why we'd ever need a Fender, we watch from the wings as Junior shreds through the Green Day catalog. If our kid is bored with soccer, we begin an exhaustive search for "his" sport, be it basketball or Irish step dancing. We want him active and engaged. So what if he can't focus? For fuck's sake, he even gets Adderall.
The part that stings the most: They're cooler! And it's pathetic that you even care. After all, your parents settled into middle-aged regularity and lameness without much fuss.
It's no wonder psychologists like Carl Pickhardt, author of many parenting books, including The Connected Father, encounter so many men who complain about their spawn's privileged circumstances. "Parents are entirely complicit," he says. "They give to their kids what they never got and then get angry at their kids for not being appreciative. But of course the kids don't know. All they know is this abundance and affluence. How could they ever be appreciative?"
One need look no further than Joseph Jackson to see how badly this situation can turn out. No doubt Papa Joe has felt unadulterated pride at his kids' success, but his strained grins and attempts to out-glam, out-party, and generally outdo his kids make for an unsavory cautionary tale.
Too often, a desire to provide the best for your kids morphs into an attempt to furnish them with all the stuff you want yourself. Bruce Miller, a television writer and father of three from Los Angeles, had his reckoning while touring private middle schools with his son. "These places were amazing—way better than any college I'd ever seen," he says. One school offered courses in Chinese and a swim team coached by an Olympic gold medalist. "All I remember about middle school is not being able to open my locker and fear of an ill-timed erection. And here my kid was walking into this idealized version of middle school. It wasn't fair. I wanted a do-over."
Once he realized that his son's actual experience at school had very little to do with the material stuff, Miller started to come around. "My son, he cares about skin and girls and trigonometry," he says. "It might look good to me now, but middle school still sucks."
The trick to defusing the negative feelings is letting your kids off the hook. "In the end, it's not jealousy—it's sadness for whatever you wish you had," Pickhardt says. "Once you realize that, you don't get angry at the kids. You can appreciate that what you're doing is providing what your parents weren't able to."
At which point you might just be able to allow your young ones to enjoy laser tag while you occupy yourself with a familiar game: blaming your parents for the shitty job they did.