Confessions of a good father

It’s time for a revolution in my house. I determined this recently on Father’s Day, which to me is largely a Hallmark holiday, so I have no real expectations for special treatment. Nonetheless, I woke to my two daughters arguing over something like, “Who’s better Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift?”  And it got me thinking about our life and what it means to be a father.  First, let me say that my kids are great. They are mostly kind and generous to each other, well mannered and respectful, and they pitch in to do their part to keep our family on track.  So let me be clear that I’m not in any way implicating them in this idea.

I think by most standards, my wife and I would be judged as a good parents.  Our kids behave as well or better than other kids we know (most of the time).  We know about sibling rivalry and we have some pretty good coping skills in place.  We’ve seen Babies and know that kids will fight over rocks and sticks even if they don’t have the abundant array of things we have.  Our kids get plenty of sleep and have a well balanced diet full of super foods (but ice cream is more a rule than an exception).  We’re not as strict as the Tiger Mom, but we’re pretty tough with our family rules and deliver consequences at least as well as Mike and Carol Brady.  We certainly don’t have parenting all figured out, but our family journey has brought my wife and I closer together, as we are totally outnumbered by the kids.

That’s so seductive.  Really seductive.  I can pat myself on the back and feel great because I do so much for my kids.  But you know the old joke about how fast you have to run to get away from a bear?  (Faster than the other guy!).  This is an absolute problem, not a relative one.

How fast do you have to run to escape the bear?

My wife and I have worked diligently to provide a safe, stable, and stimulating environment for our kids.  But in doing so, I fear we’ve removed too much adversity and created a bubble in reality.  I worry that my kids are not sufficiently aware of how things work for the overwhelming majority of people in the world.  I hear constantly that great people are made by overcoming difficulties in their lives, yet when I look around our lives I don’t see any real difficulties.  That said, I certainly can’t say I grew up under tough circumstances.  My first 20 years were spent in a place akin to the town in Caddyshack,where I was more of a Danny than a Spaulding, but certainly not wanting for much.

My next 10 years were spent largely working in non-profit organizations, providing leadership and social skill building programs to “at risk” kids.  These kids were “at risk” of things like teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and not finishing school.  During that time, I learned to see the world through their eyes and I came to understand how lucky I was to have the privilege of a safe comfortable home with resourceful parents taking care of me.  When I met my wife we both agreed it was our top priority to create a happy home where our children could thrive, but now I’m struggling to make sense of the competing commitments of stability and adversity.

We can fabricate adversity. I played sports and went on outdoor adventures to test my limits.  I recently watched Lucky Ducks, where wealthy New York City mom Tracey Jackson feels much as I’ve described above, and decides to make amends.  She decides to create a film of her intervention, which consists of sending her daughter to India to teach street children instead of going to the beach for Spring Break.  Great premise, but in my opinion, she gets lost in her desire to create a hit indie film and comes off looking worse than when she started.  My least favorite scene is when she jets off to Montana to gather advice from a self described “Kid Whisperer” psychologist about how to help her daughter.  Ugh.

You can’t use the same thinking or resources that got you into the mess to get you out of it.  What got you here won’t get you there.  Etc. etc. This is not about fixing the kids or the family.  This revolution is about me.  What am I willing to change about my life to help my children get more grounded in reality?

The afternoon of Father’s Day, my daughter was sent to her room for somethingoranother and yelled back, “What am I supposed to do for food?”  I replied that she could go to bed without dinner.  Her response: “Fine, I’ll just starve to death!” (insert door slam here).  That was the last straw for me.  We waste more food at one meal in our house (and we’re pretty good at cleaning plates and managing portions) than some kids get in a whole day.

So this is my question… how can I create experiences where my kids will grow to see themselves in the context of the world and know better how to respect and appreciate their circumstances?

I don’t want drive-by, tourist observation experiences, I want something natural, reciprocal, and sustainable.  I don’t want this to be the kid’s problem (it’s mine).  I know this will be uncomfortable for me and my wife.  We have to adjust our own lives to make this happen.  It will mean we have to miss out on other things we’ve got built into our lives… perhaps sports, or Brownies, or a family vacation.  What a luxurious problem to have.

Your advice is welcome, I’ll keep you posted on our journey.



1 thought on “Confessions of a good father

  1. As a new father (13 month old son), I ponder issues like this. It starts early – whether to let him take that little fall or to preemptively catch him, whether to help him with some little task or let him struggle with it himself for a while. He often makes that choice for us, usually resisting help, but he definitely lets us know when he needs help.

    One idea I have for the future of my family is to engage in service or volunteer work on a regular basis. This is a newer concept in my life, since my family of origin did not do this. We weren’t part of any church or other social organization, and I don’t think my parents were very socially minded (maybe because it leads to socialism? I don’t know – that’s a completely different discussion).

    I want to actively seek out opportunities for our family to help others. This contributes to one’s sense self-worth and capacity for empathy, it offers experience in different kinds of work, and it opens up one’s eyes to the kinds of struggles and challenges that other people face, and, indeed, could happen to any of us. It can also inspire to see how people overcome these challenges with humor, hope and resilience.

    The “bubble in reality” you mention is a valid concern. Growing up in a stable and secure suburbia, much like yours, not wanting for anything, left me in a bit of a bubble. I experienced very little adversity growing up. Being generally smart and competent in school only reinforced the bubble effect. I was also given a lot of chances at things, so that failure never really felt like failure. It was never very hard for me to have a job and maintain a certain basic lifestyle, and I think my deep down underlying assumption was that it could never be otherwise. “Things will always work out for me.”

    This year has been a major reality check, with a first child, a weak economy, and an abrupt loss of income. I’ve never had to work harder to get work, and the work I do have is not enough. My wife and child are staying with her parents out of state while I get us back on our feet. I’ve never been in more personal pain, and I’ve never learned more in such a short time. (It is said that pain is a teacher.) Ultimately, I believe the experience is making me stronger, giving me opportunity to grow, widening my horizons, and setting me up to create an even better life for my family.

    I just wish I had learned a lot of this through the years in smaller doses of pain and consequence.

    It doesn’t help that I tend to learn by experience rather than by what I’m told, but I think that’s true for most people, especially children. I would rather model behavior and provide experiences as a parent than command or lecture, which is why I want service activity to be a family experience. I also want to allow adversity and failure, to an acceptable point, because what the conflict is or what failed is not as important as how it is resolved or overcome.

    These will be challenges for me, since they are different from my upbringing, but well worth it as a way for my family to grow and thrive.

    I can see how taking on such an adjustment can be uncomfortable for you and your wife, as well. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a “revolution”, but some adjustments here and there, some activities replacing other activities in your schedule. It sounds like you have a really good thing going in your family, and it’s great that you are considering the dilemma of stability vs. adversity. It is truly luxurious to even be able to consider it. I wish you the best on this journey.

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