I’ve been a father for more than 21 years, and have 6 kids altogether, and have loved every messy minute of it.
And now I have a young brother who’s becoming a father this month, and is deeply scared by the prospect of fatherhood. He’s not sure if he’ll do a good job, worried he’ll fail.
I can tell him this: being a father is the scariest thing I’ve known in my life. All of a sudden, I was 19 and in charge of a fragile human life, so precious and dear but so flickering and easily put out. And I was completely unprepared — no class in school taught me what to do, and I had very few life lessons by that time.
It was the most terrifying experience ever. And it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
More rewarding than getting married, than running an ultramarathon, than starting a successful business, than helping thousands of people change their lives through my example.
But to be honest, I sucked at it at first.
My biggest problem, apart from a dreadful lack of knowing what the hell I was doing, was a sense of entitlement. My child should do what I say, behave a certain way, grow into the person I want her to be. That’s ridiculous, I now know, but it caused me all kinds of conflict in the beginning.
I now see a father not as a shaper of clay, but a herder of cats. A father isn’t molding a child into the perfect ideal of a human being he’d like her to be … he’s trying to keep her alive, and feel loved, as she grows into whatever she already is.
So for young men who are becoming fathers, and young women becoming mothers as well (because there’s not much difference other than anatomy) … here are my thoughts on herding cats. Just know that I’ve violated all of these ideas repeatedly, and learned these lessons the hard way.
Your first job is to love them. And to be there for them. This is above all other duties. Of course, we need to keep them safe and fed and clothed and change their diapers — keep them alive — and that’s important. But let’s consider that the baseline — it’s not hard to keep a child alive into adulthood. Anyone can do it with a smidgen of effort.
What’s important is whether the child grows into an adult who is loved. This is trickier, because in our entitlement to having the child behave the way we want her to behave, become who we want her to become, we tend to push, to judge, to expect, to scold, to drive wedges between our heart and hers. But in the end, all of those things just get in the way of the main duty: to have her be loved.
If at the end of your life you can say that you were there for your child, and she or he felt loved, then you’ve succeeded.
Your example is more important than your words. We often tell the child to be considerate as we yell at him, and so he doesn’t learn to be considerate but to yell (only if he’s the more powerful in the relationship). When we punish, they learn how to punish and not whatever other lesson we think we’re teaching. When we put them on restriction, they aren’t learning to share like we think they are.
If you want the kid to grow up healthy, you should exercise and eat healthy foods. If you want the kid to find work that he’s passionate about, do that yourself. If you want the kid to read, then turn off the TV and read. If you don’t want the kid to play video games all day, shut off your computer.
A hug is more powerful than punishment. A hug accomplishes your main duty (to love), while punishment is the example we’re setting for the kid (to punish when someone makes a mistake). When a child behaves badly, this is a mistake. Are we adults free from mistakes? Have we never been upset, never behaved badly, never given into temptation, never told a lie? If we have done any of these things, why are we judging our child for doing them, and punishing her for them?
What’s more important than judging and punishing, when a child makes a mistake and behaves badly, is understanding. Empathy. Put yourself in her shoes. What would help you in that situation? Have compassion. Give a hug. Show how a good person behaves, though the example of a hug. And yes, talk about the problem, get them to understand why the behavior wasn’t so great, get them to empathize with the person they’ve hurt, but learning to empathize must start with your example.
Trust them. Let them take risks and fail, and show them that it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to take risks. Don’t give them the neuroses of being afraid of every little risk, of worrying constantly about safety, of making a mistake and getting punished for it. They will fail, and your reaction to that failure is more important than the failure itself. You must show them that the failure is just a successful experiment, where you learned something valuable.
If you trust them, they will learn to trust themselves. They will grow up knowing that things can go badly but trust that all will turn out OK in the end. That’s a trust in life that’s incredibly valuable.
Let them be who they’re going to be. You aren’t in control of that. You might care deeply about something but she doesn’t. You might think what she cares about is trivial, but that’s who you are, not who she is. Let her express herself in her way. Let her figure out things for herself. Let her make choices, mistakes, take care of her own emotional needs, become self-sufficient as early as she can.
Read with them. Play ball with them. Take walks and have talks with them. Gaze up at the stars with them and wonder about the universe. Make cookies with them. Listen to their music and dance with them. Greet them in the morning with a huge smile and a warm, tight embrace. Do puzzles together, build a robot together, get into their blanket forts, pretend to be a prince or a Jedi with them, tell them stories you made up, run around outside, draw together, make music videos together, make a family newspaper, help them start a business, sing badly together, go swimming and running and biking and play in the monkeybars and sand and jungle.
Each moment you have with your child is a miracle, and then they grow up and move away and become their own person and figure out who they are and get hurt and need your shoulder to cry on but then don’t need you anymore.
And so in the end, fatherhood is being there until they don’t need you to be there, until they do again. And it’s not a thankless task, because they will thank you every day with their love, their presence, their smiles. What a joyful thing, to be a dad.