Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What I’ve Learned about Being a Father

A friend describes fathering this way: those occasions when your wife and kids are all around you and everyone is getting along; and you’ve gathered together because you’re celebrating something significant that happened in your family; and there’s a warmth in the room that you don’t have all the time but cherish more than anything when you do; and you’re probably paying the bill for it all because that’s what dads do but you don’t mind because everyone is content. My friend has christened these experiences as “Dad-moments.” We laugh about them because we both value those moments and are willing to do almost anything to have them at every opportunity.

I had one of those Dad-moments last month when my son graduated from West Point. All my family was able to attend the various parades and ceremonies that marked the occasion. My wife was there of course. Our daughter Katie—married to a Navy pilot stationed in Japan—was also able to attend.

Our family life has been blessed. Our two kids were and are terrific and at every stage of their lives have brought Pam and me more joy than we deserve. We have an open and straightforward relationship that allows us to truly enjoy each others’ company. And what makes me particularly happy is that we all enjoy a great sense of playfulness: teasing one another is our favorite pastime.

My own father and his wife were at the graduation, too.

My father is one of the most remarkable people I know. A retired high school principal, he reads, thinks, travels, talks and is a great companion. He’s also a great father. He taught me the things dads have to teach their kids: faith, responsibility, initiative, playfulness, competition, the importance of taking care of your family, the value of hard work, self-reliance and self-respect. His way of fathering me has been the pattern for how I’ve fathered my kids.

Will’s graduation picture brings fatherhood into a new focus for me. Will’s in the middle, as he should be; it’s his day. Pam is standing on one side, a place she well deserves because of the hundreds of hours she put in on the telephone the last four years listening to him complain about his life as a cadet. Katie is happily on Will’s other side—she doesn’t call him by his name; to her he’s simply “brother” and they’re as close as a brother and sister can be, despite the various arguments and disputes between them that apparently will go on until well after my funeral. My dad and his wife are on the right.

What catches my eye in the photo is the blessed position I’m in of being both the recipient of fathering as well as the giver of fathering. What I’ve received from my father I’ve passed on to my own son. And Will—there’s no doubt in my mind—will be a great father in his own time (although he does threaten from time to time to make his children attend West Point so that they will be as miserable as he claims he has been). This position is for me a place of great comfort and purpose. Fatherhood is one of the greatest two or three joys of my life.

I’ve had my struggles as a dad. I’ve done many more things wrong that I’d care to admit, and the things I got right often happened by accident. Still, there are a few things I’ve learned about fathering that come to mind as we approach Father’s Day this year.

·         Fathering today is in dangerous territory. Over thirty percent of all American children today are born to single moms. That number will climb to fifth percent in the coming decades. Men are abdicating their responsibilities in record numbers and leaving their children to fend for themselves. The consequences of growing up without a dad are well documented. Juvenile crime, teen-age pregnancy, drug addiction and adult incarceration are some of the more visible social issues whose primary cause is fatherless households. Other consequences include a higher risk of child abuse and depression. The men who abandon their children don’t know what they’re missing out on.

·         Fathering skills are caught better than taught. Can fathering skills be taught? Of course they can and should be. There are multitudes of men who grew up without dads who yearn to do better with their own kids than their dads did with them. Still, men who are blessed with effective fathers themselves have a head start.

·         Fathering well is a deeply humbling endeavor. All dads understand that they can’t control everything in their kids’ lives and much is outside their control. The best we can do is to put our kids in a position where they can choose success for themselves.

·         Fathering always has spiritual overtones to it. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal, describes the essential connection between fathering that takes place on a human level—like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son—and that which takes place on a spiritual level. The point of the parable is to show how God responds to us as graciously as does the father in the parable to his erring son. When I take my responsibilities as a dad seriously, I’m doing godly work.

·         Fathering is worth our best energy, resources and attention. No man starts out his family life intending to abandon his children. What happens is that we just allow other things to take over: job, hobbies, or personal interests. Our children voices can’t articulate their own need; it’s up to us to discern it. One of the great lies that we tell ourselves is that we’ll somehow substitute quality time for quantity time. In other words, we pretend that we can take all the time we want for our own needs then reserve a few minutes a day—or a week—for our kids, only we’ll make sure those few minutes are doing something significant. But that’s not how life is lived, and it’s certainly not how our kids live. The fact is that you can never predict when an ordinary event or conversation or experience may suddenly turn into something of earth-shaking importance. And if you’re not there as a dad, you’ve missed it. We dads simply have to give the time to our kids necessary to be there for them.

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