As a parent of three boys, I’ve spent hours consulting with professionals and reading books on parenting, but I rarely found advice in them that seemed to apply to my hip-hop-loving, skateboarding rebels. Neal Thompson’s “Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood” is not a self-help book, but it offers something better: the knowledge that we parents are not alone in our struggles and doubts, and if we take a step back, we can learn to appreciate the positive aspects of raising our boys.
In this memoir, Thompson gives us an open-eyed, vulnerable account of what it’s like to be a parent to two independent, spirited boys who at an early age embrace skateboarding as not just a sport, but a way of life. As a former skater, Thompson appreciates the positive aspects of the sport: “I admired the respect skaters showed each other. There was a sweetness to their interactions, all bro-hugs and daps. I loved how they signed off phone conversations with ‘Peace.’ They were physically close, always high-fiving or fist bumping, punching and shoving, tackling and wrestling.”
As the boys enter middle school, then high school, and their behavior veers into doing poorly in school, committing petty crime, using drugs and alcohol and other negative behaviors, Thompson finds himself questioning everything: his and his wife’s choice to parent the kids “free range”; his own upbringing; his own use of alcohol; his methods of discipline, and more. In other words, like many parents, he seeks to answer the question that many parents of teens wrestle with on a daily basis: How did we get here, and how can I fix it?
This central tension of the book is balanced by stories of typical family life and bonding experiences, most notably a road trip Thompson orchestrates for the boys and some friends that they call “Sk8 the St8s.” The group tours cities from South Carolina to Los Angeles, hitting skate parks and exploring, often in areas that were off-limits to skaters. After this experience, Thompson reflects, “I’d at least learned that my kids’ art form was best accompanied by a whiff of danger, the risk of assault or arrest. At their ‘guerrilla’ spots, the boys immersed themselves, found their zone. They were focused and fearless. No expectations, no pressures, no teachers or parents. … My boys seemed happiest when they were out of bounds.”
It’s this theme of rebellion, bucking authority, becoming adults on their own terms, not following the norms of expectations of the system or their parents, that Thompson keeps returning to in his narrative. A writer himself, he shares the benefits and drawbacks of the freelance writing life. He relates his frustration when he’s asked to review parenting books, with titles like “How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid” and “The Secrets of Happy Families,” which culminates with one of his sons leaving him this note: “STOP READING BOOKS ON HOW TO RAISE ME.”
Thompson, like most of us, doesn’t pretend to have the answers. He shares his journey, and the journey of his family, with us in a heartfelt, vulnerable way that will resonate with any parent, but especially the parents of teenage boys.
Kris Bigalk is the author of “Repeat the Flesh in Numbers” and serves as director of creative writing at Normandale Community College.
By: Neal Thompson.
Publisher: Ecco, 288 pages, $27.99.