To be a Dad
I’m heading towards 50, a father to a 19yo son Dylan, and an 18yo daughter Brynn. I lost my dad this year and I miss him terribly. I seem to have done a fairly good job of fathering my kids if other people’s unsolicited comments are anything to go by. There are a good few things I regret not having done, but very few I regret doing. Here are some of my thoughts in response to Brett’s call for “to be a dad” articles. I hope they resonate with someone and encourage you to be more intentional about fatherhood:
Fatherhood is hard.
Every dad has a large “Learner” plate on his back and seldom admits it. The lack of good fathering, I firmly believe, is a root cause of many weaknesses in our society, but that’s a whole new topic. You don’t have to stand alone though, and you have a great role model to follow if you study Him well. Anyone who views God as a vengeful, aloof, distant deity has clearly not read the bible diligently. The essence of all I believe about life, finances, career, and fatherhood stems from my understanding of what it means to call God “Father”.
The first thing I’d say to any young father is that you need to make time for your kids. Quality time is good, but quite frankly just showing up for bath time, bed time, reading-to-them time, is better than attending the odd sports day or prize-giving (do make those a priority though!). Later, you might want to be more intentional about time for ‘doing stuff together’ that broadens horizons and minds, and is great for bonding. Pounce on opportunities (no, rather make opportunities!) to have intentional conversations about life; the half hour or so, lifting or walking your kids to school can be life-changing.
Moms do this naturally; dads don’t. Find other dads who share your principles and conspire with them. Make time to talk about the challenges; how to enforce boundaries, how to deal with mood swings, defiance, deviant behaviour. A teacher at my son’s school started a movement called Engage Schools, where the school initiated meetings for fathers of boys at the school to get together to hear from older, wiser fathers, and to share their own experiences. It doesn’t have to be that big – it can be 2 or 3 of you. Grab a beer together, have a braai… but bring up your kids together.
Create traditions and memories.
I regret not doing some sort of coming of age ceremony with our kids. I regret not creating more family traditions (who cares if it only starts with you, if it lasts for generations and creates a means of growing women and men of character and stature in your family!). We decided to view our kids as adults at 16, but unless you mark that somehow, the rest of your family won’t treat them that way and it can be problematic.
Kick the kids out of home.
That really is your job, believe or not. By the time you are finished fathering, they need to be able to stand alone to a large degree, with a healthy view of who they are; how to be active and constructive members of society and their community and how to be good parents. If you are a God-fearing man, then you need to have given them the foundation of knowledge of Father God and the means to make their own relationship with Him.
Love and protect their mother (from them!).
One of the best ways of giving your kids the best childhood possible is to love their mother fiercely and openly. Kids see through pretence like glass. You chose to be their father and her partner – step up to the plate. When they get to their teens and your wife’s nurturing role starts to wind down and your preparation-for-the-future role kicks up a gear, you will need to let them know quite clearly that when you promised to love and protect her, it included protecting her from them. Do not let your kids disrespect or bully your wife, ever. They will be all the better for it.
Be the hero you’d want them to emulate.
This is hard, but you have to be the person, you’d want them to look up to. It does not mean you have to hide flaws and be perfect. It does mean you have to remain true to your principles, stand up for injustice, be the change, not tolerate wrong, apologise when you’ve screwed up, keep going when it is hard. I have a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “if” on my office wall; I like to think it applies to fatherhood as much as it does to manhood. If you won’t be that hero, someone else will and they may not share your values.
Tough job, but your kids should never feel that dad will not always be doing his level best to provide food, shelter and security. I’m not talking about the latest fashion accessories; I’m talking about meeting needs and keeping them safe. You in turn can look to God as Father for that – the Word is full of examples of His faithfulness in this. I can testify to that.
I caught myself in a yelling match with one of my kids over the age of 16, I forget which one. I remember clearly realising that I was expecting them to behave like an adult just because they wanted me to treat them as one. Not exactly fair when they’ve spent the last 16 years being kids! When I realised that I had to allow them to still behave like kids while treating them as young adults and gently guiding them into adult behaviour, the stress levels lowered and we stopped fruitlessly yelling at each other. Home was more pleasant for it.
Give direction and then step back.
As my son stepped through the security gates to catch a plane to the USA to spend 3 months being a leader on a Summer Camp earlier this year, I realised that at that moment there was nothing more I could do for him, he was on his own with only his experiences, observations, learning and Father God to guide him. It’s worth giving time to thinking about what sort of things you’d want your kids to be able to do if you’re not around any more, from changing a tire or the oil in the car, to applying for a bank loan, to keeping their integrity and soul intact. Give them direction, give them learning opportunities, then stand back and let them fail. Help them up again, and be there while they take wing.
I seldom saw my dad after I turned 18 and went to varsity; we lived in different provinces and visited infrequently. I always knew that he loved me unconditionally and that he was there for me if I needed advice or guidance. It’s my turn to be there for my kids now. I’m not alone though; no dad has to be. My dad died while my son was in the US. Dylan sent me this to read at my dad’s funeral and it completely undid me:
“… I take comfort in knowing that he was the man who made my dad who he is and my dad is the reason I am the way I am today. I will miss him like crazy and never forget him as long as I live.”
It is a privilege to be a dad; don’t waste a moment of it.
[The one glaring omission here is that fathering is meant to be only one side side of the parenting coin. Standing back to back with me at times, but mostly alongside me, is a wonderful, long suffering soul-mate, my wife Barbara, mom to both of my kids. Without a life partner, I can only imagine how hard being a dad must be.]