Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2004 issue of Best Life magazine.
Earlier this year, we dropped our daughter off at college. Like her brother before her, she went and grew up on us. And as I write, I’m sipping some single malt and feeling downright valedictory, even rueful, about the passing of the Dad years. Sure, I’ve still got a role as their father. But it’s just a bit part now and, worse, doesn’t include all the best stewardship stuff—making sandwiches, buying cleats, locking the door behind them each night when they come home. Clearly, an era has ended.
And as usual, whenever a buzzer sounds, the competitor within wants a score. “How’d I do?” whispers the bottom-line lobe of my brain. Normally, I’m not much for self-criticism. I’m from the school of Reggie Jackson, who when asked to describe his shortcomings once confessed that yeah, okay, he probably did care too much. But somehow, my kids’ leave-taking has cracked open my shell. Suddenly, I can see some areas of Daddy weakness.
Now, don’t mistake me. My kids are lucky to have me. After all, there were no sirens or flashing lights in their childhood. Nor am I enjoined from crossing state lines. I hereby restate my official position: They could have done worse in the father sweepstakes. Still, looking back, it’s clear that they might have done better, too. If I could turn back time, here are some things I would have done differently, more or less. And for more on life’s most noble job, see the 20 Ways Parenting is Different Than It Was 20 Years Ago.
I Would Have Packed the Car More Often
Some of my most vivid family memories are from on the road: midnight swimming at Disney World, hiking above the tree line as night swallowed Colorado. Sure, in part they stand out just because they were exceptions to the dailiness of our three-bedroom Cape in New Jersey, and we saw new places. But for me, the appeal of traveling as a team isn’t that it’s broadening. It’s the opposite—sweetly narrowing.
Somehow, when you’re lifted out of your normal habitat, dropped into an unfamiliar place where nobody knows who the four of you are, you see your team with fresh eyes. Somehow, after a day at Colonel Wilson’s Reptile Village, with all of you cuddled in two beds in the $39.95-a-night anonymity of motel America, watching some corny movie and eating pizza, you feel bound, not merely by DNA or circumstance but also by the memories you’ve made together. No passports or planning or piles of money required. Just go. Three days hiking in the nearest national park. A weekend trip to watch the Yanks play the Orioles at Camden Yards. Just go. For ideas, take a look at the 15 Summer Family Trips Your Teenage Children Won’t Hate.
I’m a sunny guy, and so I spent a lot of time reassuring my kids. They’d come home from fourth grade with a problem, and I’d explain it away rather than really hearing it and understanding their anxiety. Bad plan. I’d sympathize more, manage reality less. That way they might confide in me more now without fear of being talked out of their feelings.
I Would Have Raised My Voice Less
If you ask me, most fathers of my generation don’t shout enough. We try to reason with kids who have no concept of what’s reasonable. I once heard a guy coaxing his son off the roof of a minivan, explaining why it wasn’t safe to ride up there. “If Daddy had to stop short, you could fall off and get hurt, and that would make me sad.” Yikes! Sometimes, yelling is better than building self-esteem. Consider this from child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim: “We become most upset with our children when we see in them aspects of our own personalities of which we disapprove.” Bull’s-eye! I support Dad anger when kids have earned the wrath of a right-thinking man.
But my wrath wasn’t always the honest and true and helpful kind. Sometimes it was the whirlwind of my self-loathing. That wasn’t fair, and I’d take that back if I could. My hunch is that free-floating anger makes kids more timid than they otherwise might be. And for more parenting secrets, check out the 35 Lies Every Parent Needs to Master.
I Would Have Put Up the Hoop Sooner
It’s no snap to find common ground with kids. A basketball hoop in the driveway is a bridge across the gulf. It’s hospitable to games of H-O-R-S-E with your 52-pound third-grader and to real contests with your teenage power forward. The beauty is that the court requires no conversation-which both fathers and kids hate. The sounds and shuffles of driveway basketball-the bonk of the rock on blacktop, the lope and ease of shoot and retrieve-are WD-40, loosening up everything and quieting the minds of both big boys and their kids.
I Would Have Hung Around More at Bedtime
The 10 minutes right before the kids go to sleep are often gold. In a way, they’ve surrendered, and sometimes, as they put on their pajamas and brush their teeth, the anxieties of the day fall away and they’ll start to talk in a wandering, undefended way. Often, revelations float to the surface, and you’ll get glimpses of dreads or enthusiasms or curiosities that the momentum of the day might have obscured. Don’t get caught downstairs watching the second quarter of Lakers-Warriors just when the kids are about to blossom. Hang around their bedroom for 10 minutes or so, and see if you can’t catch a flash of something, of little people reaching out to the big ones who they suspect care greatly about them.
I Would Have Bought More Hamsters
My hunch is that years hence, long after I’m gone, whenever my daughter thinks of me, the first word that flashes across her mind will be “Peaches.” Not the fruit, but the loyal brindle-and-white hamster who was the founding mother of our rodent dynasty. For a period of four years, when my daughter was in fifth grade through eighth, she and I conspired to raise countless generations of hamsters good and true. And the sensory memories of the equipment required to tend said pets—the squeak of a hamster wheel, the piney smell of wood chips—will always summon Dad for Daughter, Daughter for Dad. Fishing has the click of reels, the texture of a basket creel. Car care brings wrenches and fumes and hand soaps around which pearls of recollection grow. I’d have shared more stuff with my kids—golf, hunting, baseball, coin collecting, camping, whatever, doesn’t matter, anything that has the gear to shape remembrance. If you need an extra push toward the shelter, check out the 15 Amazing Benefits of Adopting a Pet.
I Would Have Invested the First Five Minutes More Often
Often, at the end of the day, I was tired. Frazzled by obligations and addled by a too-short attention span, I didn’t always engage with my kids in whatever—reading to them, helping with homework, listening to their tales of trauma or triumph. But almost every time I got past the initial inertia—driven by guilt or goading from Mom—there were moments of invigoration just around the bend. We stumbled upon silly games and jokes that have evolved into the stalwarts of our family culture. Thoreau celebrated what he dubbed “the gospel according to this moment.” If I could turn back time, I’d try to think about the past and the future a little less.
I Would Have Been More Patient With Fantasy
Let’s say a man had a son who was less interested in sports than he was in elves and wizards and comic books. And let’s say that this son who was in every way bright and good and loving just didn’t fit his father’s preconceived idea of what his son would be like. He was expecting a hardy Huck Finn—an outgoing, athletic boy—and he got a somber, shy, sweet one. A fully grown man ought to have known that there are a million paths to manhood; he should have cherished somber and shy and sweet more. His failure to embrace those elves must have seemed like a reproach.
I Would Have Touched Them More
I touched my kids a lot when they were little. We wrestled and cuddled, and slept together whenever anybody got scared. But as they got older, I got less touchy. Sure, it made some sense. Fourteen-year-olds rarely enjoy the same monster games they did a few years ago. But in part I fear I touched them less because I felt marginalized by their teenage disinterest in me. Yes, I was giving them their space, but I was also withholding the endorsement of a tap on the shoulder while passing in the kitchen, a kiss on the top of the head while swooping out the door to work. Shame on this grown man for holding out on the kids he loved. Human touch trumps the language of esteem building. A righteous dad should keep using his hands.
I Would Have Spent More Time Alone With Each Kid
I spent a fair amount of time with my children. But the lion’s share of it was with both of them together. I wonder if that didn’t keep me from hearing the unique sound of my boy and my girl. God knows we had lots of laughs as a group, but in my next life, I might institutionalize some just-the-two-of-us traditions with each of them. Something tells me that if I’d had a never-fail Saturday-morning diner breakfast with my daughter—my son was asleep anyway—I might have heard her solo voice a touch more clearly, and she might have understood the particularity of my love for her.
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