Saturday, June 20, 2009
The Little Man
I'm learning. On-the-job training, I guess.
I was a bad helicopter dad for a long time, hovering over Oliver at playgrounds and in the backyard, ready to leap if he did something dangerous or needed some help. Or even if he just took a misstep. I'm better now. There are a lot of times when I grit my teeth and ignore him while he's in the backyard, climbing up his slide backwards with a garden hose in one hand. Sometimes I don't even bother to come outside.
Here's what I do. I shout into the backyard. "Oliver, I'm trusting you to make good decisions out there and not to do anything reckless. Can I trust you?"
If he says yes, I leave him alone.
At playgrounds, I force myself to stand on the sidelines, not next to him. I want him to be safe, but more than that, I want him to be responsible. I want him to know that he's in charge of his own safety, not me. If he's slipping, he's got to catch himself. It's his job, not mine.
I want him to be safe, but more than that, I want him to be in charge of his own life. I don't want other kids to pick on him, but if they do, I want him to settle the issue himself, not wait for his dad to fix it for him. Whether that means slugging the other kid or yelling for a teacher, he's going to have to learn how to solve his own problems.
I'm trying to do the same thing with discipline issues and those other little domestic issues. For a long time, I tried furiously to figure out how to solve those little earthquake moments of the day. Oh, no, he won't put his shoes on! Oh no, he won't eat his lunch because it's on the wrong plate! Oh, no, he's throwing a tantrum because I wouldn't let him turn on the water fountain!
I used so much mental energy trying to figure out how to cajole/charm/threaten him out of the crisis of the moment, and now I'm just trying to let him resolve it. You won't put your shoes on? Oh, well, we'll just stay here then, instead of going to the zoo. Let me know when you're ready to leave.
You won't eat lunch? Okay, well, it's going to be a long time until dinner. I guess you'd better figure out what you want to do. I'll be over here, eating my lunch.
When he grows up, nobody's going to be scrambling to offer him a different choice for lunch or a different place to set up his office or a different door to walk through. He's going to have to learn sooner or later that he's in charge of his own life, and maybe by giving him a head start, he'll be a little more prepared to deal with other kids and with the outside world. Maybe it'll make a difference. That's all we can do as fathers. We decide the best way to raise our kids, and we do the best we can, and we see what happens.
I can't turn him into a major league shortstop or a Congressman or a successful writer. But I can raise him the best way I know how. I can show him what it means to be a good man by how I live my life. I can work at being a better dad. That's really all I can do. If I do all that, whatever happens, I know that I did the right thing.
But if I don't care - if I don't think about how I'm raising him - if I don't care whether it's a slap or a request that gets him into the car - then I'm a failure as a father.
It doesn't take much to be a good dad. Pay attention. Talk to them when they talk to you. Remember that your kid is always watching you. Read to them.
And care. Above everything else, care about your kids. Just care. They're going to be adults someday, and those little decisions you make now are going to stay with them for the rest of their life. Give a damn about the impression you make in their lives.
Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.