This week the Denver Post published an article titled, “The Dad Handbook” with snapshot quotes from several fathers in the Denver metro area. The article makes the claim that these dads are “seasoned experts giving their best advice” to other dads. Find the article here: http://www.denverpost.com/Lifestyle/ci_25944380/Denverarea-dads-share-advice-good-times.
I have every reason to think that the fathers who contributed advice to this article are good dads—I imagine they are loving dads with great intentions. I also have no reason to think that the few words they contributed to the Denver Post somehow convey an exhausted summary of everything these men would say about what they’ve learned while being a dad. If anything, I’m critically disappointed in the editors at the Denver Post for distilling their comments down to the package of this article as a caricature of what it means to be a good father in today’s world. If this is the best advice we can offer to dads on what it takes to be a good father, then I say we’ve horribly missed the mark.
My critique of the Denver Post suggests there is an alternative view on what it takes to be a good dad. And since I’m taking issue with someone else’s list, I certainly expect my point of view is open to critique as well. So then, here’s my short list of things that I’ve learned about parenting from the dad-side. And this all stems from two central questions influencing my efforts in fatherliness: What do I expect from my children? How can I best live in a way that guides my children towards those expectations?
1. Children are not entertainment
Full disclosure: I am a Gen-X parent. As someone who came of age in the 70s and 80s, it’s important to be aware of one of the controlling cultural principles that was powerfully at work in Gen-X culture during my own formative years. And that principle is this: the world exists for my entertainment. I was in that first MTV generation during a time when rock music and movies were not about some high and lofty expression of idealism or social change; it was pretty much just about pure entertainment and sought to make no point beyond that. But I think this sweeping undercurrent of Gen-X culture in the 80s produced a generation of parents who are still controlled by this same principle today, that the world exists for my entertainment. And now we apply that principle to our view of parenting—that we use our children to somehow satisfy our desire to be continually entertained.
Soccer games, baseball games, cheer competitions, dance recitals, orchestra concerts, drama performances…the list goes on. At some point our obsession with endlessly placing our children in front of us on stages and fields can inadvertently send the message to our children that they only exist to perform for us and entertain us. And turning all of these activities into competitive events only makes it worse. At some point our children learn that their self worth and value as human beings is measured in how well they perform by our parental standards to meet our demand for entertainment.
What’s the solution? Join your child in unstructured imaginative play in which you let the child set some direction. Last week I played wiffle ball in the back yard with my 4-year-old. She wanted to set up six bases and then run back and forth among them in any random order after hitting the ball—in order to avoid being tagged, no doubt. My first inclination was to correct her and instill the proper rules of the game. But instead we did things by her way of thinking. In that moment, the best parental move was to just play along, thereby assuring my daughter that our time together is not time which is only fulfilling if she performs by my standards for my satisfaction.
2. Significance trumps happiness
Often it seems dads are tempted to tell their children that we just want our kids to be happy. The intent may be noble, but do we really expect that somehow our children can go through life experiencing nothing but a feeling of continual happiness all the time? Not only is it totally unrealistic, it also misses an important opportunity to be a father along side of our children during times when they suffer and struggle—an opportunity that is not dominated by a pre-mandated directive that they just get over it be happy again. Please don’t brand me as an abuser who only wants my children to be miserable. Of course I want them to be happy. But reality is that they will not be happy 100% of the time. And I still have a fatherly duty in times when they are not happy. So maybe happiness is not the ultimate standard of success I can give for my children. I’d rather give them a standard of success that isn’t so fleeting and temporary.
More than a life of happiness, I want my children to know a life of significance. I want them to know that they live for a purpose and that their lives have meaning. I want them to know that they have talents and abilities that are given to them to make the world a better place—not just for them, but for others too. I want them to know that the significance of their lives is measured in what it is they do to serve and give for other people. And as it turns out, when they live in a way that pursues a life of significance, they know happiness as well. But happiness is just the byproduct, not the goal. Significance is a better goal.
3. Consistency is key
One thing is certainly true of children growing up in today’s world: culture is changing faster than they can keep up. One thing that our children may need from dads more than anything else is stability in a world of constant upheaval. So as hard as it may seem to hold our ground and keep firm boundaries, our kids need this from dads. Even though it may seem like our kids often push against our boundaries and try to press out, it is far better for them to know without question where the boundaries are than to have moving boundaries or no boundaries at all.
The way dads can give their children a place of stability is by pursuing consistency. Consistency is really about integrity. When I tell my kids I am going to do something, then I better do it. In this way, dads need integrity, they need to be men of their word. It doesn’t mean that we are cold and uncompromising. But it does mean that we ensure a place for our children to know stability in an unstable world.
4. Show your values
Do as I say, not as I do. Sorry it doesn’t work out that way. Children will forever learn immeasurably more by what we do than by what we say. This means that dads need to practice what we preach; we need to walk the talk [insert your own cliché here]. In short, if there are attitudes and behaviors that I want to instill in my children, then the best way for me to do that is to model those attitudes and behaviors myself. I can tell my kids to stop eating so much junk food; but if I eat too much junk food, my advice falls on deaf ears. I can tell my kids to stop with the backtalk; but if I constantly fly off the handle with ill-thought remarks at their behavior, can I honestly expect anything different from them?
So if I want my children to value things like generosity, compassion, self-control, etc. then the best way as a parent to teach these values to show it myself. In fact, sometimes as dads we need to go out of our way to allow our children to see these values at work in our own lives. And it’s not enough just to show these values in the way we interact with our children. What they really need to see is how I show these values to other people. If I want my child to value generosity, then my child needs to see me acting generously toward other people. If I want my child to value compassion, then my child needs to see me being compassionate towards other people. The values that we want our children to hold are values that need to show up in how we live as dads.
5. Holding on and letting go
From the day a child is first born, the entire experience of parenting is really an exercise in just one thing: gradually letting go. This is an art more than a science. There is no one-size-fits-all method here. Every day is about somehow letting out a little more slack in the line. And at first glance we might think there is a point where someday we let go of the line altogether. But I think experience tells us that the influences we have upon our children forever keep some kind of connection. At least I know that the person I am today is influenced by my own dad. Sure, he let out enough line to let me become my own person as an adult and make my own decisions. But I would be naive to somehow think that I do not carry his influence yet today. I am still my father’s son.
Letting go means that there are times when we have to allow our children to fail. And better that they learn this lesson young, while we as dads are still there to guide them back up to their feet. Much has been said and written about the phenomenon known as helicopter parenting—hovering over your children, ready to rescue them at a moment’s notice before any misfortune befalls them. Sure, we all want the best for our children. But sometimes the best for our children means letting them make a bad choice and receiving the consequences for that choice as a way to learn for the future. I can tell my kids a hundred times not to touch a hot pan on the stove or they will get burned. Funny how my prohibition is almost then interpreted as an invitation. What will happen if I touch it? Will I really get burned? What does a burn feel like? But all it takes is one time making a bad choice to touch the pan, receiving the consequences for that action, and they’ll never do it again.
Part of our mandate as dads is learning how best to let go a little bit at a time. But this also comes with a realization that some of the influences we have upon our children will stay with them forever. So make that influence count where it counts the most, and learn how to cut loose on the decisions that they need to make on their own.
6. Know your place
Nobody is perfect; no dad is perfect. When kids are young, dads can do no wrong and can fix anything. As our children grow older, we become something of an embarrassment who is seen as out of touch. As they enter adult life, our children begin to realize that dads have both triumphs and faults. There are some things we do well and get right. There are many other ways that we make mistakes and let others down.
It’s good that our children realize that we are not perfect. In some ways this gives them permission to be less-than-perfect too. It’s not an excuse for dads to be lazy or stop trying to do our best—or expect anything less than the same of our children. But it does acknowledge that, even when we try our best, we don’t always come out on top. And the same thing is true for our kids.
Maybe one of the hardest things that dads ever have to do as a father is to go to our children when we mess up, say we are sorry, and ask them to forgive us. We cannot always be superheroes.
7. Let love show up
And finally, the thing that dads need to show children in and through all of these other qualities is love. I’m not talking about the kind of love that is an emotional feeling. I mean the kind of love that shows up in unconditional, self-giving commitment. Telling our kids we love them is good—they need to hear that. Showing our kids that we love them is better—they need to see that.
Dads loving their children shows up in commitments of time, patience, and forgiveness. It does not show up in trying to broker for their affections with gifts. We cannot buy our way out of withholding the time and attention that children require of us. Provision of material possessions are not a measure for love—that is, the more stuff I give me kid is not directly proportional to the amount of love I have for my kid. Just the opposite, some of the most loving fathers in the world live in countries with poverty levels far greater than we experience.
Love shows up when our children live in the assurance that dad will never turn them them away. Our children know we love them when they know that we value and treasure them no matter what. A father’s work of love is to make sure his children know there are standards and expectations, but never convey that as a threat; that it’s okay to let children know when they sometimes do things that disappoint us, but never convey that they are worthless; that working all day to provide for their needs is not nearly as important as stopping each day to ask them how their day was. Love takes time and commitment.
Many of you know that I am a church pastor. Perhaps the question can be asked why I did not include items on this list such as “that my child learns to believe in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior” or “that my child knows God as the true heavenly Father.” What kind of a Christian father am I if I do not put these on the list—and at the top of the list. Two responses: (1) The article to which I am responding comes from a secular source. And while my response seeks to be faithful to biblical principle, it is also a response that seeks to speak into the secular culture. (2) As much as I desire for my children to grow in faith, I do not presume to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in producing faith in my children. I cannot do what only God can do. What I can do is strive to be faithful to the task to which God has called me, and trust God to be faithful to what he has promised.
till next time…