Make my time their time.
For most of my childhood my father worked 60 hours a week. I’d see him for about 10 minutes each morning, a 45 minute dinner hour and as I grew older, for a few minutes before bed 5 days a week. Regardless of how much house work he had to catch up on during the weekends, he always made time to hang out with me and keep a tab on my life and my interests. His lunch hours were spent picking up albums for me at record stores or printing off web pages for me to check out before we had an Internet connection of our own at home. Despite his hectic work schedule I never once felt ignored, let alone forgotten.
Know when to hold them close…
One of my earliest sense memories of my father involves me standing at the bathroom sink, him behind me helping to scrub my hands after we’d built something in his garage workshop. Later those rough-hewn hands would take the time to give me a hug before my mother packed him off to the ER because he couldn’t breathe. He instinctively knew to reassure me before they left that I knew he’d be all right. Never let teenagers fool you into thinking your presence as a parent no longer matters. Even as we transition into adulthood we still want you there for everything that matters.
…and when to push them out of the nest.
Jaded by a lousy public school experience, I had no interest in even attempting college. Not only did my father find a major that piqued my interest, he did all the research and demanded that I move out of the house to live on campus. “You need to get out into the world. It’s time,” he said, point-blank. And he was right. College wound up being one of the best experiences of my life and the place where I met my future husband who is, in many ways, bizarrely like my father.
Always stay positive.
Everything has a bright side and every opportunity is an adventure. Even when hard work is involved or challenges are persistent, there’s always something to think positively about in my Dad’s playbook. Do you know how hard it is to manage that kind of attitude as a voting adult, let alone a parent with two jobs, a mortgage and college educations to pay for? Yet, the older I get the more the jaded cynicism of my youth gives way to the comforting ease of happiness exuded by my father …even if it was after a rant or two about taxes.
Take joy in my own talents and abilities.
My father could have been a professional singer. Instead, when presented with the opportunity to audition in front of some fairly influential people, he decided he’d better stick to his day job for the sake of his wife and kids. Nevertheless, he always managed to take joy in his talents, whether by participating in the local community players or simply singing at the top of his lungs in the shower. He developed enough of a local reputation to have more than one person approach him to inquire if he’d sing at their family event. And when he belted out Sunrise, Sunset at my own wedding the crowd stood in awe. “Hey, can we rewind this thing?” he asked when watching my wedding video. “I want to see my part again.” There is nothing wrong in taking joy in who God made you to be.
Play with the toys we both like.
Whether he used his theatrical skills to bring life to the puppets in my toy box, or his architectural talents to help me build castles with my blocks, my father always made it a point to connect his interests on my level. Not only did I learn more about him and the world around me, I also learned a lot about myself, including the fact that in many ways I am a lot like him. And as a parent, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing that spark with your own child.
Teach my children the joys of people watching.
Don’t waste a lot of money on major outings when you can go to the park or the mall, find a bench, and get a lot of humor out of your surroundings. Children learn so much about life and the human psyche by simple observation. You also learn how to crack some pretty good jokes.
My father is a quiet guy by nature. Like most men, he doesn’t always know the right thing to say. But he does know that sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to simply listen to them. And that’s a powerfully reassuring lesson, especially for children who tend to hear “Be quiet!” more than anything else. When you listen to a child you’re helping them to find their own voice. That’s one of the most empowering things you can do for them as their parent.
Get radically involved in my child’s interests.
When I was into cowboys, he’d research the rodeo. The Beatles? Countless books, photocopies of old photos, tapes (yes, the cassette kind) and a day at Beatlefest was in order. Oh, and a trip to London of course. That’s right, when given the option of a party or a trip for my 16th birthday, I chose a trip never thinking it’d actually happen. But there we went, my parents and I, to London to stomp Beatles territory and re-live my Dad’s days as an Air Force policeman on the streets of London in the swinging ’60s. It was the culmination of a lifetime spent sharing mutual interests at a point in our relationship when we began the transition from parent/child to friends.
Put my kids first.
Whether it was providing for us financially, emotionally or socially, my father never ceased to put my brother and I before everything else going on in his mind and his life. His diligence paved the way for us to be close as adults, not just as father and children, but as friends who enjoy each other’s presence as well. Take heart, Dads. Your many sacrifices do pay off, which is probably why one of the first pieces of advice my father gave me when I got married was, “Have children. They’re the most rewarding part of your life.”