10 Commandments of Fatherhood
I. Hey, Dad, Be Big
In spirit, that is. Despite some easing of parent gender-roles, fatherhood is still a star turn.
Granted, some of that patriarchal stuff is withering, but you’re still the strongest guy in that house. That counts. Consider some of the guys who have gone before you: Father Times, The Founding Fathers, God the Father. It’s a powerful tradition. The kids expect some stature from you. You can’t give this role a walk-through. You’ve got to play it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can choose any old vivid persona. After all, Genghis Khan was plenty vivid, and his kids didn’t have an easy time. But you can’t be a blank slate. The kids ought to know what the old man would think about this or that. You are the anvil on which they hammer out their deal with the world. Be a presence in their lives — and their minds.
II. Hey, Dad, Be Small
Yes, this directly contradicts the first commandment. I told you, fatherhood is complicated. Don’t be so big that you suck all the air out of the room. Give your kids a little space to move around in, to test their thoughts and strengths. Take a back seat, figuratively speaking, three or four times a week. Say, “Maybe.’ Say, “I don’t know.” Now and then, tell the kids you’re sorry. There are plenty of things to apologize for: anger, inattention, bad career planning, lack of whatever. Mean it. Be sorry. You’ll feel brand new.
III. Hey, Dad, Come Home
To be sure, the obligations of making a living can keep you out of the house. Lots of fathers have a day job and a night job. If that’s your situation, God bless you, pal. You’ll get no heat from me. But if you can pay the bills without working double-shift, you’ve got to be home when you can. You don’t have to be playing catch all the time or even talking to the kids. But at least, be present. Get off the golf course. Head home. Nothing good can happen until you do.
IV. Honor Thy Father and Mother
This is actually the biblical fifth commandment. It’s included here only because now that I’m one of the people getting the honoring, I like the sound of it much better than I did when I was a boy.
V. Bob and Weave, Dad, Bob and Weave
Stay light on your feet, Dad. Don’t make too many hard and fast rules. Don’t draw too many lines in the sand. This doesn’t mean anything goes; there are rules. It just means that fatherhood is an improvisation and that human hearts — both yours and the children’s have a way with compromise. Don’t insist on having your way with the kids just because the rest of the world isn’t always overly interested in the sound of your voice. There is a difference between authority and power. Have the first; don’t abuse the second.
VI. Thou Shalt Not Dance in Front of Your Kids’ Friends
My own father once picked us up at a junior high school dance. As usual, he was wearing his wingtip shoes and that hat he got through the mail from Ireland. As we were walking out of the gym, he actually did a few seconds of the hully-gully with a horrified Margie Costanzo. My sister Kathy still has nightmares about it. If you’ve got to dance, dance with Mom in private. Don’t embarrass everybody with your version of the Hustle.
VII. Save Your Money, Big Man
You know all those corny proverbs about pennies saved? If you’re not careful, the kids will send you to the poorhouse three dollars and twenty-nine cents at a time. Think college tuition. Think down-payment on their starter homes. Though it’s true that money can’t buy happiness, it can buy lots of other stuff. Believe in compound interest, tax-free growth. For God’s sake, champ, be ready for emergencies.
VIII. Spend Your Money, Tightwad
You see what I’m after here, don’t you? F. Scott Fitzgerald said the sign of a first-rate mind was the ability to have two opposite opinions at the same time. Never mind that he fell victim to drink. You’re a first-rate mind, Dad. Spring for the glowing monster trading cards. If you’ve got the money, pop for the musical princess crown. What are you saving your money for, pal? College? Hah! You can’t possibly save enough. There is the future, and then there is now. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is it.
IX. Never Go on an Amusement Park Ride with the Word `Whirl’ in its Name, Especially the Space Shuttle Whirl at Great Escape Near Lake George, New York
Even though you want to participate with the kids, to feel their gravity-defying thrill/terror/glee, you mustn’t get on that ride with them. I did in the summer of 1995, and I’ve been a little queasy ever since. It’s tough to be a good father when you’re nervous system is on the fritz. Stay on the ground and wave.
X. This is Their Life, Not a Second Chance at Yours
I can’t say it any better than one of the most eminent psychiatrists of our time, Bruno Bettelheim: “We become upset when we believe we see in a child aspects of our own personalities of which we disapprove.” Bang! On the money! It’s tempting to make good on your own shortcomings through your children. Just because you didn’t make the varsity at North Salem High that doesn’t mean Stan Jr. has to. Help them follow their own path, not your road-not-taken.
XI. Love Their Mother
One extra commandment. Hug Mom. Often. In front of the kids. Sure, sometimes marriages end, but the obligation to a woman doesn’t. Be grateful to her. Speak to her with respect. Try to make her laugh. Listen. You can figure out how to love her.
When all is said and done, fatherhood comes down to this. Be big. Be small. Be quiet, make noise. Don’t dance in front of your kids’ friends. Save. Spend. Stay off the whirling ride of death. And love their mother. And maybe one other thought, courtesy of Thoreau, about our guy tendency to value the wrong tools. “The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade and the bog-hoe.” The triumphs of Dad are about tenacity, keeping on.
So do whatever it takes. Stay loose. Use all the clubs in the bag. Hit the ball to all fields. Use whatever sports metaphor works for you. Just be sure to use your whole body, your voice, your memory, everything you’ve got. Whisper. Shout. Encourage. Goad. Cultivate the garden. Forgive. Be patient. Watch closely. Enjoy.
(thanks to Hugh O’Neill)