An Open Letter to Young Fathers

“If you’re lucky enough to have done well, then it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

–Kevin Spacey

This is an unusual Father’s Day for me.  Last Monday, the youngest of my four children graduated from high school.  In the eyes of the state, I’m officially, technically done as a father.  I can hop aboard a plane destined for the island of St. Croix with a wave and a ‘Good luck in life’ wish for my kids.

We fathers know that isn’t how it works.  We are among the very small handful of people on planet earth that knew our children when they were babies, toddlers, tweens, teens, and young adults.  Our greatest wish is to continue to know, be with, and watch them grow for the rest of our lives; to see the adults and parents they will become.

No, I’m not done – not even close.  My role now changes from teacher to advisor.  Their lives are their own; their decisions, too, and the consequences and rewards that come with them.  There is no more “You will do this.”  From now on, it can only be “Well, my experience has been…”  That’s really what parenting comes down to – passing on knowledge in the hope that your children will avoid the same mistakes you made.

While it would be arrogant to assume that I have been a successful father – that’s something for my children and my children alone to decide – I have successfully guided four human beings from birth to adulthood.  I’ve learned much along the way so per Mr. Spacey’s exhortation above, I’m sending the elevator back down.

First and foremost, get their hearts right.  As fathers, our role is dominated by teaching and pushing for achievement.  That’s important, of course.  Ultimately, though, we will all be judged on our hearts and how we interacted with the world around us.  Intellect and achievements are wonderful, but they make for cold eulogies.  Teach them how they fit in to the grand scheme of things and how the rest of the world fits around them.  Teach them how each of their actions can make the world a better place or a worse place. Teach them to empathize – to walk in another’s shoes, to understand, to feel compassion.

Don’t get divorced.  Just don’t.  I don’t care how bad you think their mother is, there is nothing worse or more damaging to your children than divorce (you can close your email app.  I know abusive relationships are an exception. I get it.)  My children may read this, so I’m not going to get into my ex-wife’s behavior and faults.  Suffice it to say that whatever you are going through with yours, I’ve been there with a multiplier of ten.  Through all of it, I was willing to stay, to keep the marriage together to maintain stability for my children.  You can and you should work it out.  If you’re thinking life is going to be so much better with someone else, you are mistaken.  From a very selfish perspective, it may be.  Your second spouse may be kinder, less selfish, etc.  But you are simply trading one set of problems for another, some you can’t anticipate.  Divorce and remarriage are no panacea. Divorce is horrible and puts terrible strains on you and your children.  Worse, it causes untold and unseen damage to your children – damage that you may not even know exists until your children are grown.  Whatever is going on in your marriage to your children’s mother, work it out.  The reason the divorce rate is so high is that people have no idea what marriage is.  There is always so much talk about sex education.  I say forget sex education.  There should be marriage education.  Don’t get divorced.  Just don’t.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You are not perfect, so don’t expect your kids to be.  Discipline is good.  Control is not.  Don’t freak out over habits and messy rooms.  I don’t know about you, but my bedroom was a disaster area when I was a kid.  When I get got my first apartment, though, I was suddenly a neat freak.  Not OCD level, but I took care of it and nothing was out of place.  Why?  Because it was truly mine and I was a grown-up (sort of).  Yes, try to get them on the right path, but don’t let your time with them be overrun with constant nagging. Your children are human beings with their own unique life and future.  They are in your care for a period of time, but they are not your property.

Don’t fall for the ‘quality time’ lie.  This goes along with my exhortation about divorce.  I was born in 1963. Technically, that puts me on the tail end of the baby boom generation – easily the most self-centered generation in the history of civilization.  I’ve never felt any connection to this generation, but the anthropologists want to lump me in with them.  If so, then I’m part of the generation that has made its primary objective to force the natural order of things to work around individuals’ selfish desires.  It didn’t invent divorce, but it brought it into the mainstream.  It not only made divorce acceptable and seems to be working on making it a rite of passage.  To make divorce more acceptable and palpable, they came up with the lie of ‘quality time,’ which dictates that it doesn’t matter if you only see your children two weekends per month, as long as you have a good time with them, it’s ok.  It’s one of the biggest lies of all time.  Don’t fall for it.  Your children need you every day.  Every.  Day.  Your children will learn FAR more from you by your example than by your words.  Your example seeps into their subconscious and influences them more than any words you pelt them with.  They can’t get that from ‘visitations’ a few days a month.

Furthering the previous point, it’s not enough to be present in your children’s lives.  You need to be in the present while you are with them.  Turn your full attention to them in those times.  Make that time sacred.  Do not think about your checking account, or your job, or anything else except your children and what they are enjoying or learning during that time.  If your mind is elsewhere, they will know it and feel it.  If you do not focus on them in these times, you may find yourself one day – perhaps during the week that your youngest child graduates high school – struggling to summon a memory and when you do only to find that it is cloudy or paled over because at the moment it was happening your mind was elsewhere.  Finally on this point, my children’s first ten years or so occurred before cell phones and long before smartphones.  Today, they are ubiquitous and dangerously addicting for everyone.  So, for the love of God and all that is sacred and pure, put away the smartphone when you are with them.

One of your most important jobs is to cultivate, to nurture their natural strengths and abilities and recognize their interests.  Do they have natural athletic ability or a creative flair?  Explore it and cultivate it.  The trick is to walk that delicate line between cultivating/encouraging and forcing it upon them to the point that they no longer enjoy it or they grow resentful.  Good luck with that.  While you try to walk that tightrope, there are two major pitfalls to avoid:  1) don’t make idols of your children.  Celebrate their achievements, etc, of course, but do not overpraise or over-expose them on social media, and 2) if your child is blessed with athletic ability, don’t be that father at all of their games.  You know the father (or mother many times) to whom I am referring – the one who is always arguing with the umpires, referees, and coaches and insists that it is his child that is a superstar and can do no wrong.  I’ve spent many years coaching Little League and youth football.  Here’s what I can tell you about what’s happening in the dugout and on the sidelines while you are acting like an idiot in the stands.  Your son/daughter is reacting in one of three ways: 1) being profoundly embarrassed and wishing you would shut up, 2) laughing at you with teammates or being picked on by those teammates because of you, or 3) worst of all becoming conditioned to think that everyone else is wrong, that authority should not be respected, and that they are somehow better than everyone else.  Also, stop yelling instructions or constant praise while they’re on the field.  Here’s another news flash: when they are on the field they don’t hear or understand what you’re saying and it’s nothing but a distraction for them. Finally, they will survive striking out and bad calls.  It’s part of life.  Sit down.  Shut up. Enjoy the game.  More importantly, let them enjoy the game.

Don’t over-protect them.  You may think you’re helping, but you may very well be causing more damage than you realize.  You may be conditioning them to be afraid of everything when they are adults.  Mistakes and experience can often be the best way to learn and for some like one of my sons, the only way a lesson gets learned.

They do not need things.  They need you.  No matter how wealthy or poor you are doesn’t matter a single bit to your kids.  Sure, they will cry and put up a fuss when you tell them ‘no’ when they ask to buy something.  I’ll let you in on a little secret: within an hour or so, they will have completely forgotten about whatever it is that they ‘had to have.’  Also, if you’re thinking that your house isn’t as nice as your neighbors, again, they don’t care.  It’s their home and the place where they are creating memories.  It will always be home to them.  Besides, they won’t have a clue as to the difference between houses until they are older.

Make sure they know where you stand on the big questions.  I came to faith late in life when my children were already well on their way to forming their opinions on such matters.  Regardless, there can be no doubt in their minds where I am on that journey and that I am here whenever they have questions.

There is no harder work than being a father.  Likewise, there are no greater rewards. It can be scary at times while you’re on that elevator, feeling every bit of pain they feel and praying to God that He transfer the pain from your children to you.  It will all be worth it and the elevator ride will be over before you know it.  When you arrive, you will regret your mistakes and smile at what you got right.  It will be with bittersweet satisfaction that you will press the button to send it back down.

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