Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Fatherhood, a few days early...

Too often, Father's Day is a pleasant Sunday in June, when the kids let dad sleep late, mom makes a special breakfast, and another tie gets added to the wardrobe.  But Susie asked me to think about what fatherhood means, to me as a dad, to me as a kid, and to my children, and so I've been remembering what it was like when I became a father, and my relationship with my own dad, and trying to put those thoughts into a coherent form.  It's hard, because so much of fatherhood is emotional - fear, pride, love, frustration, joy - and talking about emotions is something most men aren't particularly good at.

I had a friend in my neighborhood growing up, Lance, and I remember that we knew his mom, but we never heard about his dad.  One day, another friend asked where his dad was, and he answered, very matter-of-factly, "I don't have a father."  Now, I don't know if that's because his father had died, had left, was never in the picture, or what, but I do remember, even at age 8 or so, thinking how sad and strange that was.  So when my own parents divorced when I was around 10, and my mom broke the news to us, I can vividly remember being distraught, and asking her, "Does this mean I won't have a father?"  Of course, she reassured me otherwise, and she was right.

My relationship with my dad changed, as you'd expect. Instead of seeing him at dinner every night, he'd come and take the four of us to his new home twice a week. He wasn't around to be the role model, or to play ball, or fix my bike. I never thought it was the fault of us kids that he left, but in the back of my mind, I always wondered how he could leave us, the kids, "if he really loved us." He did love us, to be sure, but it took a long time for me to be confident in that again.

I remember the moment I really felt like a dad for the first time.  We were in the hospital after David had been born, and the nurse had just wheeled him into the room from the nursery for the first time.  He was ... well, I was going to say "so small," but he was a big baby... so fragile and helpless.  The nurse fussed with his blankets, and started to leave.  I stopped her, and asked, "Is it ok if I pick him up?" She just smiled, and said, "He's your son." My son.  My responsibility.  Wow.

As a father, I want my children to succeed. As a former child, I remember that it's not possible to succeed at everything. At least, not the first time.  I want my children to be willing to try. I want them to know that my pride in them is absolute, success or failure, but that they will never know what they can do, or even what the like to do, until they first make the attempt.  That's not to say I'm going to force them to try sumo wrestling, or sword swallowing.  It just means that if they express any interest in a thing, and it's within my means, I'll see that they get the chance to have a go. But - and there's always a but - I also want them to know the value of persistence. "If at first you don't succeed," and all that.

I want my children to be happy.  That's the easy one. But what does that mean? I believe it means that they have the means and opportunity to be their own people - the people they want to be.

I want them, eventually, to know that while they may not always be dependent on me, they can always depend on me.

Most of what I know about being a dad I learned by learning to be an adult. I've always tried to treat my children as people, and not just "the kids," as if they were some sort of tadpole, unable to learn to hop until they became full grown frogs. These little people - and children are little people in their own right - don't know anything that we don't teach them. Why would you not treat them as you want to be treated? Why would you want to take this empty vessel and fill it with stupidity? Screaming at a child for doing childish things makes no sense. Of course a child wants to swallow that golf ball - he's never seen one, and it just might be tasty! Of course a child is going to pull on the dog's tail - it's fuzzy, and it moves, and she's never seen one before. Yes, by all means, stop them from doing dangerous things, but if you don't use the opportunity to teach them something, you've missed the point of parenthood. If you model poor behavior, they learn poor behavior.  If you model self-reliance and pride, they learn that. And if you teach them nothing, they learn - nothing. This is not a great insight, but it's one of those things that's so simple, it's easy to overlook when raising children. The old management saw of "set the standard high, and your people will meet it" seems to work with children as well. I'm not talking about "tiger mom" standard-setting, I'm talking about "I expect you to do the right thing because it's right." It's not just behavior, either. I learned, from my mother-in-law and how she dealt with my nieces, that if you don't talk down to a child, the child doesn't come to rely on that simple mode of dealing with the world, but grows into his intellect naturally and quickly. This makes sense, in hindsight.  They say the early years are the best time for children to learn a foreign language, because their minds are still growing. So of course it's going to be the best time to learn manners, counting, reading, or whatever. And if you treat your children like people, they'll learn that that's just how people relate to each other. It’s called empathy, and I'm unimaginably proud of my children, because they have learned this, and learned it early. For example, when Lily was about 5, she came home from school and asked, "Can Teddy come around soon?"  When Susie asked, "Do you want Teddy to come around, then?", Lily said, "Well, Teddy wants himself to come around, and I just want Teddy to be happy." That, to me, is parenting success.

I've been a very lucky father. This may be the haze of memory, but I believe I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have had to discipline either of my children. I think this comes from treating them as responsible, and expecting responsibility.  Sure, we have the typical "I don't wanna go to bed!" dramatics, but so far there have been very few "punishments." This fills me with no small amount of pride: in them, I have the beginnings of two very nice people. People I like to be around, and people others like to be around.  That's all that any father - any parent - could hope for.