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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dad of War: What Kratos taught me about being a father

(Sonny Ross for The Washington Post)

Kratos, the strapping, scowling demi-deity and protagonist of “God of War,” looked at his son, Atreus. “You are not ready,” he assessed.

It is a blunt assessment. It sounds demeaning. It feels a little unnecessary.

The boy is still mourning the death of his mother, the person he was closest to in this world. We also learn that Atreus is ailing, struggling with some kind of sickness. More, he’s still grappling with the sensitivity, sadness and rage that the boy displays more than the father would prefer. More frequently than he offers support, Kratos points to those open emotional wounds and, with his words, applies salt.

“You lost control,” Kratos chides his son following a fight with a troll. His son rebuffs him, noting how he literally just watched his dad rage out while fighting the Norse monster. “Anger can be a weapon … if you control it. … You clearly cannot,” the father rebukes.

Atreus defends himself again, but it only shows he is missing the point. Kratos kneels down and tells Atreus to punch his hands. Each time the father swats away his son’s feeble effort. “Too slow,” he chides. “Weak,” he goads again. Finally, anger grips Atreus and he lunges headlong to strike his father. Kratos steps aside as Atreus crashes to the ground.

Kratos kneels next to his son and grabs his arm. “The path ahead is difficult,” the father warns at the start of the perilous quest that plays out during the 2018 game. “And you, Atreus, are clearly not ready.”

I understood Kratos’s concerns and demeanor, if not his method. The year I played “God of War,” the youngest of my two girls was just one-year old and struggling sleeping. Four consecutive hours was a good night. Between that nightly deprivation and having my patience regularly tested by my eldest daughter, fatherhood was a lot at that particular moment.

I sympathized with the surliness shown by single-dad god when Atreus pressed him with one too many questions. The grumpiness was familiar when I felt overly taxed by my own kids. And I could relate to the pressure of helping steer a child through daily dangers, never mind explaining the world as they try to wrap their minds around larger puzzles and problems they’ve yet to grasp.

The world is a hard place. No, there are no undead roaming the land, and while we may not need to contend with the cruel, selfish gods of Asgard, Earth has plenty of its own troubles.

As a father, I take one look at the daunting landscape that now surrounds us and … it’s bleak. Pandemic. Racism. Recession. Division. Beliefs embraced over truths. I look at my two girls, only now about to begin their education, and I can’t help but think, “You are not ready.”

These protective parental feelings aren’t uncommon. When my wife was expecting our first daughter, she worried about pretty much everything. “Is that too close to the crib?” she would ask about the plush toy two doors down from the baby’s bedroom that could only be rendered harmful by a Navy SEAL or MacGuyver. I’d kid her about it, but I’d also understand her fear.

Stop and think and you’ll see dangers everywhere. And by “stop and think,” I mean just Google “dangers for kids” and ponder how each may apply to your children. Oh, to have a double-handed battle ax and a couple of chaos blades with which to protect them.

Though known before their birth, when you’re responsible for the life of another, there comes an acute awareness that this place, our world, it can be terrible. It’s dangerous. It’s illogical. And the powers that guide its fate are far larger than your own.

For those who can reconcile their place against that awesomeness, the realization is humbling. For those who struggle to accept that reality, the sensation is more like abject terror. As guardians of our kids, how can we prepare them for … everything?

Kratos knows the challenges of the world and takes it upon himself to teach Atreus — even if the lessons sometimes sting. He knows the dangers his son is about to face on their journey. He knows his son is young and overeager and unaware of the world at large. He knows that if Atreus had journeyed through the world, like Kratos has, the boy would appreciate the gravity of the path before them. And so the father seeks to steel his son for the journey. He withdraws a hug to hand his son a knife. The latter, he believes, will serve the boy better.

Parents, to a terrifying degree, define the destiny of their children. Consider the choices we make for our kids before they achieve any kind of autonomy. Where they live, where they travel, who they meet, what they see and hear, are almost exclusively a function of the decisions of their parents. Before they even know what the word fate means, we are their fate.

When you think in those terms, it’s a tad overwhelming. Your decisions will shape the rest of your children’s lives.

I am fallible. I err in my judgment. When I wake up (far too early) each morning to the calls of my youngest daughter longing to be released from her crib, I feel anything but godly. At that moment my only godlike power is the ability to avoid stepping on Legos before drinking my coffee.

And yet it is our responsibility to guide and shape these impressionable young beings, to enlighten them about a world that (does it need to be said again?) is deeply flawed.

It is hard not to hold them close, shut their ears and shield their eyes, to preserve their innocence and save them from pain.

So when Kratos restrains his son, when he checks him in his overeager pursuit of man/godhood, I get it. Don’t worry about Olympus, Atreus, nothing good happens there. Don’t rush to become adults, girls, it’s not as glamorous as you think.

But there’s a flaw in that approach, because we can’t protect our children from the world — at least not to the extent we might like. If my daughters’ endless pandemic streaming of “Rapunzel” has taught me anything, it’s that your children will get out into the world, or more likely, the world will find a way to your children.

Let’s stick with the divinity theme for a second and examine the creation myth I grew up on. Back in the day, when God looked at everything and deemed it “good,” there was just one source of knowledge, an apple-filled tree that would enlighten anyone who ate the fruit about the true nature of the world around them. There was literally just one source, in all of creation, where humans could learn about their world. One. And what happened?

Now, (as God looks at everything, likely nursing a bourbon) information and knowledge is everywhere. Never mind the newspaper. Internet searches are just the tip of the iceberg. Twitter? Facebook? Snapchat? Insta? Tik Tok? Forget about willingly eating the apple. If the Tree of Knowledge fable played out today, the snake would have mashed up the fruit, filled a syringe and injected it into humanity’s eyeballs.

Information is everywhere. It is inescapable. The task of parenting children cannot be about preserving innocence. That task is virtually impossible. Now, it’s about endurance, endurance in a world where you learn all of its ills whether you want to or not. You best protect them by teaching them to protect themselves. You just need to find the right methods, and balance, to help them reach that level of independence. To process the problems and navigate the challenges accordingly. I’m sure my boy Kratos feels me on this.

There is no escaping reality: Your kids will grow up. Your kids will learn about the world. So, how do you want to handle it?

Kratos never wants to tell his son that he, like his father, is a god. He wants to keep Atreus in the dark and hope the world that has plagued him will pass over his son. Kratos frets Atreus will become perverted by the power, like the other deities Kratos has encountered — himself included. He wants better for his son, and so he shields him, thinking it in his best interest. As the plot unfolds, Kratos learns that hiding his son’s true identity from him is actually killing him.

Eventually, Kratos relents, tells Atreus the truth and must shepherd his son through what I think of as the “puberty” portion of the game, when his son starts pushing him away and becoming emotionally volatile. For all of the frustration, even after a devastating turn in which his son kills another god simply because he can, Kratos helps steer Atreus toward the light. In reciprocal fashion, Atreus does the same to his father.

Kratos teaches his son about survival. Atreus teaches his father about compassion. In the end, the two rub off on each other.

“For someone so strong, you sure worry a lot,” Atreus says.

“It serves me well,” Kratos responds. “And it’s how I keep us alive.”

“I guess. Not a terribly fun way to live though.”

In their relationship and love for each other, Kratos and Atreus find a balance. By listening to his father’s wisdom, Atreus becomes a better person. In adopting more his son’s optimistic view of the world, Kratos becomes compassionate. The father is the savior of the son. The son, the redeemer of the father.

Mornings are the worst as a parent. Children, at least mine, seem to spring from their beds with a boundless energy. It’s as though they’ve siphoned it from me while I slept.

Another day begins. Down the stairs to make breakfast. I barely finish setting the cereal bowls on the table before the inevitable, overcautious critiques spew from my lips as I scroll through Twitter and the latest, bleak news.

“Give your sister room.”

“Use your spoon, not your hands. We don’t eat like that.”

“Don’t talk with food in your mouth. You might choke.”

“Sit normally. You might fall.”

It’s a world’s worth of worries just a handful of minutes into the day. We haven’t even ventured out the door to the world beyond.

Finally, my youngest finishes her cereal. She’s three years old, with a personality that oscillates between unbridled joy and boundless, completely disproportionate despair. She looks at me and asks timidly.

“Daddy, are you mad?”

I pause and remember an exchange from “God of War,” when Atreus questioned his father’s stoicism and Kratos shot back, “You do not know my ways.”

It gave me pause amid my mundane daily frustration. Maybe Kratos and Atreus had actually taught me something, too.

“No, darling. I’m not mad.”

She beamed at me. “Daddy … smile! It’s happy, Daddy!”

She slides from the bench she nearly fell off three times during the meal and scurries off to play with her sister. For a few moments I just sit, shake my head and smile.

I don’t need to be a god, shaping every detail in the destiny of my children. Being a dad will do just fine.

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