I was far from a perfect father as my kids grew up, even though I am very proud of them as they begin to unleash themselves on the world. (Hannah just graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, which she celebrated by going to Nicaragua with Global Medical Brigades. Caleb will be a junior next year studying Architecture at Montana State.) I often joke that if I had to go to a job interview or meet someone, I would try to send my kids instead. I think they have always reflected better on me than I might deserve! (You may be thinking this is false humility—in which case you should probably talk with my wife. 🙂 )
All that aside, there are a few things we did while the kids were growing up I am very glad we did. Personally, I didn’t do them right all of the time—and thank God I had their mom to double-team them with—but I think, at least at this point, they came out better for these practices.
1. We took every opportunity to listen
As parents do today, we spent a lot of time in the car shuttling our son to sports and our daughter to dance classes, along with all the other nebulous places we had to take them as taxicab parents. While we may have overdone the activities, I never felt freer than when my daughter launched out gabbing on some subject that caught her fancy or my son and I stopped somewhere to eat after a disappointing baseball game. In such moments, I got to just be and talk with my kids like they were interesting, valuable human beings. As I look back, the conglomeration of those moments represent some of my most cherished.
2. We read to our kids almost every night
Though my wife did ninety percent of this—and sometimes it would seem to go on and on like it would never end—I am glad we did it. Stories have always been important to our family and sharing some of the classics together was a rare treasure. I also learned that reading during sleepovers solved a lot of headaches. (Yes, I am really good a putting people to sleep when I talk.)
3. We fostered an environment where respectful debate was welcome
While I wish we had made more of a practice of eating around the table together at dinnertime, that didn’t keep us from having some pretty healthy “conversations” about everything from the right kind of friends to the existence of God to liberal vs. conservative politics (we do live in Boulder, Colorado after all) to the value of homework. I was surprised at how often I thought I lost these arguments, but then a few days later, heard them saying exactly what I had said to them debating the same issue with one of their friends. I guess old dad did have some wisdom to pass on after all.
It also felt good that they were willing to broach such subjects with us, and equally good that they fought so passionately and logically for what they believed. I think those debates contributed to their becoming the compassionate and conscientious thinkers they are today. At least they have given a few college classes a run for their money.
4. I coached my son through sports rather than at sports
I coached my son in baseball from the time he started coach pitch until he was almost ready to go to high school. Frankly, I was a pretty bad technical coach, even though baseball is still my favorite religion. I think you can count the wins I had as a manager on one hand. Regardless, Caleb turned out to be quite a pitcher by the time he got to high school, and baseball is a love we share today (even though we didn’t always in earlier years).
And, on the inside, I struggled with all the questions that go with a father coaching his own son. Was I too soft or too hard on him? Did he play more than he deserved to? Etc., etc. But, in all that time, despite frustrations and disappointments, I tried to teach him that sports are a way to learn about life and get better prepared for handling its ups and downs. They are games, after all, not ends in themselves. Winning and losing should never trump growing up.
5. I made a point of having “the talk” with my tween-aged son
Okay, disclaimer, I did get the Passport2Purity set and we listened to them together. It made some tough topics a lot easier to discuss. But we made a men’s retreat out of it, went to the family cabin in the mountains, just the two of us, spent the whole weekend hanging out, and debrief thoroughly after each lesson. My wife did the same with our daughter. As a result of that and the openness we had about such subjects for the rest of their teens, they managed to avoid a good deal of the drama usually associated with teen dating and sexuality. There were some bumps along the way—thankfully they seem rather minor in hindsight—but both of them are entering their twenties with healthy attitudes and, if any, only small regrets.
6. We were hard on rebellion, firm on carelessness, but understanding about mistakes
The fact that we were able to still talk with our kids about tough subjects when they were teens had a lot—at least in my opinion—to do with the way we disciplined them when they were younger. Remember, “discipline” is related to “disciple” not “punish.” It is about teaching.
The kids experimented with all of the usual behaviors as they grew up, but blatant disrespect and disobedience were the only things that brought out the spanking spoon (yes, we used one, and thankfully, just bringing it out was usually enough). When they were rebellious, there were real consequences; when they were careless, we helped them do what they could to fix whatever was “broken”; and when they made mistakes, we acknowledged that we make mistakes too (and still fixed them together 🙂 ).
We talked with and loved on them after any discipline and emphasized that their life would be better if they could reason things through rather than to choose defiance or slander. We were in this thing together after all, why take things out on each other?
When they got to their teens, this meant some interesting “standoffs”—sometimes we just stood between them and bad decisions and refused to get out of the way. We always stuck to our guns until the kids learned to make better decisions “for themselves.” 😉 Sometimes it took a while, but they always did, and there was often some good debate in these situations as well.
7. I always made sure I loved their mother the most—and that they knew it
I’m not sure I always communicated that the best I could, but I always tried to make sure the kids knew their mom was my number one most important person on the planet. I’m not really sure what effect that had on the kids either, but it is certainly something, looking back, that I am glad that I did.
It’s hard to write this without thinking of the mistakes that I made along the way as well—getting angrier than I should have at times, acting or speaking rashly, getting frustrated over the littlest of things (I could go on and on!)—but, as I look back, these are the big things that jump out at me that I think I got right. I certainly could have been more “efficient” in some things, and the kids did go through some troublesome phases, but so far they have seemed to be launching into adulthood with no need for long-term therapy because of dysfunction childhoods. In fact, if you’ve met them, you are likely to recognize them as pretty good human beings in training, and I remain proud to be associated with them.
So, I am not completely sure of all we did right, but I think these things helped. Other than that, I just thank God for His grace and all He did in their lives. I am forever grateful to have been given the opportunity to be their dad.