A couple of essays ago I wrote about what I have learned so far. It was a collection of bits of wisdom to pass along to any man who has or will become a dad this year. Now I would like to showcase some of the best advice I have received so far.
This one I learned by watching my brother so it was not so much advice spoken as it was advice demonstrated.
My brother married a wonderful woman who had a son from a previous marriage so he stepped onto the parenting game at a different place than I. As I watched him grow into his role as step dad I marveled at how my brother actually got down on the floor and played with his stepson. It seemed like an intimidating thing to do because I always pictured fathers as reserved monitors of the play area, not active participants.
My brother has been successful at parenting because he allowed himself to be silly, vulnerable, and genuine with his step son. He also showed his willingness to be a friend and active participant in the boy’s world. I wouldn’t become a father for another 15 years but I have never forgotten the example he set for me.
It makes a huge difference in how your child receives you if you physically get down to their level, not just for play but when they are traumatized by injury or emotional conflict. Getting down to their level helps them feel equal and respected.
Granted, there are times when you need to be the authority and standing tall during difficult moments with your child can help bolster your position. You will always have that advantage in their early years. Not so much when they become a 6′ 5″ teenager.
So while they are small be willing to engage them at their level. They can’t grow up to you, but you can grow down to them.
“Better the Ball”
There is a wonderful blog at daddysday.wordpress.com. In one of his posts the author describes his time as a water polo player in his college days. There is a phrase his team would use to describe a strategy for improving play:
“If a pass went too low behind our head, for example, we would lay back to catch it and let the momentum of the ball bring us back around to our balanced position. We called this “bettering the ball.” Bad passes were inevitable, but there was no excuse for a bad pass just because we received one…So we learned that one bad pass was to be expected, but the pass that followed had better correct course.”
This concept can easily be applied to parenting. Often our children send us bad passes in the form of spilled drinks, thrown food, tantrums, and in the case of my daughter – a refusal to remain clothed. That last one is particularly bad when we’re already running late to a function.
These moments, the “bad passes”, can cause me to get angry if I let them. The sudden loss of parental control, the frustration and feelings of being ignored and disrespected can bubble up quickly, causing me to act rashly. However, my anger only serves to inhibit me from taking effective steps to improve an already stressful situation. If I can remain unperturbed and rise to the challenge of finding better way to approach the problem I can implement the strategy of “bettering the ball”.
Focusing on bettering the situation no matter what it is avoids the anger trap. I have discovered that I can embrace this strategy by being more motivated by the challenge of bettering a situation than I am of discharging my pain at my children. My anger is my own problem and the kids don’t deserve to be the target of that anger for simply acting their age. As the DaddysDay author said, “there was no excuse for a bad pass just because we received one.“
It is a simple and elegant concept that has improved my parenting dramatically.
“Don’t Take What Your Kids Do Personally”
Among all of the parenting advice I have received so far, this one has remained the crown jewel of wisdom. It was said to me casually by a good friend and I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Then the reality of owning a screaming, inconsolable baby who both loved and hated me came crashing down. Suddenly I was lost in feelings of guilt for not knowing how to properly deal with every tragic moment in the most effective way. I began to get frustrated when my daughter wouldn’t simply fall asleep in the afternoon so I could get my own much-needed rest. Clearly I was doing something wrong. Clearly I was a Bad Dad because if I was a Good Dad my daughter wouldn’t be crying.
As the days went by it began to dawn on me in simple moments. I started to understand and accept that my daughter is crying because she is hungry and can’t communicate in any other way. She is barfing all over me because she has a sensitive stomach and doesn’t have the coordination to get to the sink. It isn’t personal.
As my daughter gets older and her communication skills increase she can paint a more detailed picture of her emotional state. It gets harder not to feel guilty when she can now specifically state what is making her sad, mad, or afraid. The key is to simply accept what is being presented to me and find a way to help.
For example, in the middle of yet another of my daughter’s tantrums I realized that no matter how upset she is about having to brush her teeth she simply needs to brush her teeth. Her disdain for dental care doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent or that I’m doing something wrong. She is just mad and it’s her right to spend her time being so. For my part I can employ the strategy I mentioned above and work on a better way to motivate my daughter to get those teeth brushed. Now I focus on what I need to do to help my children rather than my misguided feelings of injustice and resentment, and their lack of appreciation for all of the things I do for them. They can’t understand because they are kids.
So, now when my daughter gets bent out of shape because she has to wear shoes I don’t waste time being upset that she isn’t obeying me. I try to find a way to motivate her to get those shoes on. Later, when I’m back in her good graces, I’ll ask her about the moment and get her to talk about why she wasn’t happy with me. Then we can get on with our lives until the next moment I upset her by making her eat vegetables instead of candy for dinner.
So there are three bits of wisdom I have received during this short but incredible adventure in fatherhood. If you have anything you would like to add to the list, please leave a comment and let me know what you have learned.
I feel immensely fortunate to be surrounded by great examples of parenting, in both the real and virtual world. My family has benefited greatly from what I have learned and I am not afraid to say I am proud of how far I have come since that frighteningly exciting day when my first child arrived. Who knows what kind of adults I will unleash on this world? I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about that. As long as I am continuing to learn and making the effort to be the best father and husband I can be, I know I’m doing my part.