How Sponsoring Fellow Alcoholics Is Teaching Me How To Parent My Son

By Christopher Dale 06/29/18

How do I, an alcoholic with a dysfunctional childhood who didn’t even begin maturing until his early 30s, go about the daunting duty of raising a son to manhood?

Father and toddler son building a model truck with popsicle sticks.
Two years ago marked the most notable blessing to date: The birth of my first and only child, Nicholas.

Recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous has helped me build an incredible life. A restored marriage, a promising career, and a comfortable suburban home highlight the tangibles; the wisdom of the program and mentorship of its members have provided the intangibles – accountability, purpose, sanity.

Two years ago marked the most notable blessing to date: The birth of my first and only child, Nicholas.

This gift, however, also presents my most vexing sober challenge yet: How do I, an alcoholic with a dysfunctional childhood who didn’t even begin maturing until his early 30s, go about the daunting duty of raising a son to manhood? How do I break, as much as any parent can, the cycle of insanity Nicholas has inherited?

As Nicholas approaches toddlerdom – where he’ll start truly developing lifelong memories – solidifying certain notions of parenthood has become increasingly urgent. “What type of dad do I want to be?” is quickly becoming “What type of dad am I?” It’s becoming clear that these child-rearing concepts aren’t going to magically manifest; I need to search for them.

And where I keep finding answers is the only relationship in which I’m actually qualified to give guidance: my role as an AA sponsor. Here are just a few of the many parenting perspectives my experiences as a sponsor have helped formulate.

Coddling Is Counterproductive

The most meaningful child-rearing principle that sponsorship has instilled in me carries even more significance considering our helicopter-parenting, participation trophy-wielding times: Coddling trades short-term ease for long-term hardship.

Many addicts, myself included, are recovering from people pleasing as well as alcohol and drugs. Our diseases demanded instant gratification and, by necessity, we were talented at telling people what they wanted to hear in order to skate by or score more.

When we become sponsors, we must play a longer game. We learn that giving a sponsee an undeserved pat on the back when what he needs is a kick in the ass is not only counterproductive, but downright irresponsible. Enabling a sponsee’s laziness or self-denial can mean being party to his relapse.

Sponsorship has taught me that I can’t shield someone from tough choices, uphill climbs and heavy lifting. As much as I root for a sponsee, I can’t want his recovery more than he does; as my son grows, I’ll fight similar urges to carry an oversized share of burdens he himself must bear.

The overall message is clear: work hard for worthwhile goals. In a sponsee’s case, that goal is long-term sobriety and perpetual personal progress; in my son’s, the goal is responsible, upstanding citizenship and self-sufficient adulthood.

Here, AA is endearingly traditional in its nose-to-the-grindstone approach to progress.

There is a grit factor in the rooms that, these days, is sorely lacking outside of them. To both sponsees and children, “get to work” is the kind of simple but meaningful instruction that is easily understood and, when followed, results in both tangible and character-building rewards.

I’m finding that the less I coddle my sponsees the more favorable the result. I am increasingly confident that the same will hold true for my son. Soft sponsorship yields soft recovery. Ditto for soft parenting.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Roll your eyes all you want, but when this starting appearing on mugs and memes everywhere, I hoped (beyond hope, it turned out) that more people would adopt a mantra that AA so effectively espouses.

Few markers are more telling of one’s maturity than the breadth and depth of people, places and things that anger, intimidate or otherwise derail him. As someone who, according to men with many more years sober than me, had "smoke coming from his ears" as a newcomer, I've learned this lesson particularly harshly. It's taken years of trial and error - of getting a little less angry to similar situations, then reflecting on how useless and toxic that rage was - to form a demeanor even remotely resembling even-keeled.

Watching my sponsees struggle with this journey – with getting totally jammed up over matters of dubious-at-best significance – is Exhibit A of sponsor-sponsee symbiosis. As I talk my sponsees down off the inevitable next ledge, I remind myself to practice what I preach.

I am committed to developing this big-picture, c'est la vie attitude in my son. And while anyone with a two-year-old understands how successful I've been thus far (not much, if at all), I can look to my own imperfect, ongoing transformation as proof that progress takes trial, error and – most of all – time.

For now, this concept lives in little things. "I can see that you're very sad about having to stop watching TV, but you'll see Peppa Pig tomorrow," I'll tell a crying Nicholas, as the credits of his favorite show roll while I usher him off to bed. Or "It's PJ time," I tell a sobbing, splashing boy engrossed in his bathtime toys. "We'll get all dry and get some milk, how's that?"

These gentle nudges, I hope, will push Nicholas toward a more bird's-eye worldview where he realizes that the little things in life aren't worth getting upset over. As he grows I'll instill in him, gradually and imperfectly, that a precious few things warrant more than a brief moment's annoyance. Here, my role as a sponsee gives me the best chance to break yet another inglorious familial cycle: rage-aholism.

Think for Yourself

Though AA most assuredly isn't a cult (cue the usual troll bile in my comment thread), at times it is certainly prone to an unsophisticated, unhelpful herd mentality. There are sayings and beliefs in the rooms that I find silly, arrogant, or wildly inaccurate.

I am upfront about this with my sponsees; they are free to disagree with me on any of my program-related peccadilloes. The overarching lesson is each of us needs to find a recovery that is workable within the construct of our authentic self. "Faking it to make it" will only take us so far; eventually, recovery through the 12 steps is a journey in self-discovery, one which, per popular program prose, demands rigorous honesty.

First and foremost is the childish belief, held by far too many in AA, that God has saved them specifically. Simply put, this implies that God chose to let others die. I often wonder whether the person proclaiming such nonsense realizes that his belief system is based on declaring himself more special than fellow sufferers. Neither my sponsees nor my son will be weaned on such pompousness.

Oddly, another whopper that permeates AA is the polar opposite of this holier-than-thouism. It is uttered every time a newcomer is told that his experiences, strength and hope matter as much as someone with longstanding sobriety – that each of us "only has today."

This well-intending white lie creates an unproductive false equivalence between those who've thoroughly followed recovery’s path and those just beginning to trudge the trail. Because AA - like parenthood, I'm educated-guessing - is about mentorship more than anything else. My responsibility to pay it forward isn't as relevant if everyone has the same amount of currency.

This all boils down to three words that I find myself repeating to sponsees and, because of this, will find myself repeating to Nicholas: "You're still learning."

Sit back. Relax. Learn. Don't overextend yourself. No, sponsee, you shouldn't go to a bachelor party in Las Vegas at four months sober. I have enough sobriety to handle that, you don't. Yet. And no, 17-year-old Nicholas, you aren't driving across the country with your friends because you aren't ready to do that. Yet.

These are just a few examples of how the privilege of guiding recovering alcoholics through the 12 steps will help me guide my son through childhood. As my sober experiences grow in tandem with my son, there will undoubtedly be many more points where sponsorship intersects with parenting – much to Nicholas’ benefit.

And of course, there’s this: if Nicholas comes home with his eyes pinned, I’ll know what’s up. My rocky past and recovering present will allow me to recognize the warning signs of the scourge of my son’s generation: opioids. Should that day come, my recovery may help save my son’s life, as it did my own.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Chris & Nicholas Dec 2017.JPG

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.