On Fatherhood

Lessons learned over the last six years

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Kate (3), Molly (1), Leo (5)

I’m approaching six years of fatherhood. Given that tomorrow is Father’s Day, I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the experience so far.

Being a good dad has been harder than I thought.

I’ve always liked kids. Their playfulness, creativity, curiosity, and innocence is such a great contrast to the harsh and sometimes dull realities of adult life. But I think that my appreciation of children led to some naivete about how challenging good parenting would be. Being a bad dad is easy – you’re either not there, or you’re absent when you are there, or you’re just annoyed or unloving when you do engage. Being a good dad requires the willingness to constantly give yourself away – to sacrifice your time, energy, and tasks in order to address the endless stream of wants and needs that children bring. Of course this is obvious to anyone who’s been in the game long enough, but for me it’s been a progressive revelation. One thing that’s made it especially challenging is that I thrive on solitude and silence and these are not gifts that children bring! I’ve learned that so much of effective parenting is about self-management – managing my time, emotions, energy, and expectations so that I can bring my best to my kids instead of my leftovers.

Parenting is heart work.

I got this concept from the excellent book of the same title. The emphasis on heart change and inner motivations over surface change and behavior modification is so key. I review my Kindle notes on this book from time to time because it’s so easy to forget how important it is that I relate from God’s heart and my heart to their hearts. If you only read one book on parenting, make it this one. This is the foundation.

I need to parent each of my children differently.

Again, nothing new here for those already in the trenches, but part of successful parenting involves understanding how each child is unique and then adjusting your parenting strategy accordingly. It’s about you adapting to them, not them adapting to you.

We joke that in terms of personalities, Leo is our dog, Kate is our cat, and Molly is our monkey. Leo loves people and is loyal, adventurous, and wants to cuddle close. Kate is strong willed, responsible, and happy to do her own thing. She’s relational, but on her terms. Molly is playful and affectionate but also quite mischievous and has already earned the nickname Bandit.

With these different personalities comes different needs. Right now, Leo needs to know I enjoy being with him and he also needs my patient, gentle instruction. Kate needs to be invited into more of my adult world and be treated with respect. Molly needs to have fun with me and feel included in my life.

Quality time goes a long way.

If you don’t date your spouse, your marriage can very quickly descend into task-management mode. If you don’t carve out time to have fun with your children, one-on-one, and invest in building the relationship, your parenting can very quickly become all about rules, rewards, and punishments.

I try to do something special with each of my kids once a month. Sometimes it’s as simple as a Happy Meal and the Playplace. They love it. Other times it’s a park or a bike ride or a trip somewhere new. The point is that we’re having fun together and they feel cherished by me.

I always come away from these times liking them more. I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. I need it as much as they do. It helps me remember how great they are and appreciate their uniqueness instead of just being annoyed when they misbehave. And the more securely attached they become to me, the more their behavior tends to improve as well.

I’ve found that in general, maybe means never. If I don’t schedule these times, they won’t happen. So I do. Speaking of scheduling…

Consistent schedules and routines make life easier for everyone.

We are structured around our house. Maybe to a fault. But we all need it. We have wake times and mealtimes and walk times and play times and quiet times and bedtimes. We have daily routines and expectations and things we know we can count on.

One example – scripture reading, prayer, and songs before bed. After toys are picked up, baths are taken, teeth are brushed, and pajamas are on, we plop down on the couch for a Bible story, some prayer time, and some singing. Our children love this routine and always look forward to it. Per the usual, they never want it to end. Sometimes it evolves into tickling and wrestling. Other times it devolves into arguing and we shut it down fast. But the important thing is that we all know it’s there.

I need to grow with my kids.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth restating. Children grow and change so fast that just when you think you’ve got it figured out, they’re on to something new and you need to catch up. My job as a dad is to relate to my kids as they are and as they will be, not as they were and as they won’t be. The leash should be getting longer, not staying the same length or getting shorter. This is as much about my mindset and flexibility as anything. It’s also about paying attention to their development and responding appropriately instead of being lost in my own world and work.

Time flies.

The days are long but the years are short. My goodness, they really do grow up fast. I heard this so early and so often that it almost became a platitude, but boy is it true.

When I scroll back through Instagram and look at pictures of Leo as a little kid, I feel a mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy because of his growth and the good times we’ve had together, but sorry because of the recognition that I missed a lot of it because I was too busy, distracted, or annoyed to be fully present with his journey.

I’m working on really cherishing every moment instead of just trying to make it through each day.

More is caught than taught.

My children are always watching me. They’re watching what I do and how I do it. They’re observing my attitude, body language, conversations, responses to problems. I can give the best pep talks and life lessons but at the end of the day, people do what people see and kids learn more from observation than information. I am their role model, for better or worse.

Dare to discipline.

Yes, I stole James Dobson’s line here, although I’ve never read his book and don’t agree with his politics. But discipline is important and Dobson certainly didn’t invent it. The Bible is full of imperatives on disciplining our children – not to punish them, but to train them. The discipline is for their own good.

When I walk through Wal-Mart and see parents who don’t know how or why to discipline their kids, I feel concerned for their family and for our society. We know where this leads.

When I see parents say no, set limits, and enact consequences, I want to give them a high five. Their kid may be screaming, but they care more about doing what’s right than being liked.

Culture matters.

“We don’t do that in our family” is a powerful line when applied appropriately. This one is pretty fresh as our kids are still so young, but Leo is already bringing back words and behaviors he’s learned from peers that we simply don’t want to incorporate into our family culture. It’s my job as the dad to be a sort of filter for what we allow into our home. And more importantly, to explain why. If I don’t proactively create our family culture, then society will automatically fill in that space, often with negative things.

Some of the best parenting moments happen on the way.

I’m learning to invite my kids to join me for errands, house projects, problems I’m solving. It teaches them about life, but it also creates more time for us to be together.

I don’t always do this. Sometimes I need space to recharge or focus on the task at hand without a gazillion questions coming at me. But when I do, it often creates a kind of relational margin that fosters some meaningful moments and conversations.

For example, I invited Leo to join me on my run the other day. He rode his bike and got to see my usual route. We talked about goose poop and snapping turtles and rabbits and shared a cookie at the end. Nothing earth shattering, but he got his bucket filled and I still got my run in.

Some of the most important questions I’ve received from my kids have come at the least convenient times for me but the most convenient times for them. They can come when I’m middle of a task, or exhausted after a long day, or totally in my own world. But they are on the way and I don’t want to miss them.

Relax.

Sometimes I expect my children to act like adults, which is just ridiculous. It’s so easy for me to have unrealistic expectations of them when all they need to be doing is playing, using their imaginations, making mistakes, being silly, getting messy, and acting like the kids that they are.

Some parents are too hands-on while others are too hands-off. For me, being a good dad in this season of life involves letting my kids be kids while simultaneously growing our relationship, pointing them to God, and guiding them into greater maturity.

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Are you a dad? What are some of the things you’ve learned along the way?

 

Author: Dave Mierau (Meer-oh)

Christ follower, family man, lifelong learner.

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