Fatherhood Lesson #5:  Stuff Flows Downhill

Fatherhood lesson #5 is a family corollary to Newton’s Law of Gravity.  Inelegantly put, stuff flows downhill.

It’s one that regularly grabs my ear and kicks my butt.  The more time that you spend with the kids, the more attuned they’ll be to your moods and concerns and while you might tell kids otherwise, they are pretty perceptive.  You help set the tone in the house and it does have an impact. 

In this particular instance, I’ve found that if I respond harshly – whether it’s deserved or not – to a child, that child will pass the love onto a younger sibling.  And if you have more than two children, you can watch it pass in a linear and chronological fashion through the children.  So I’ve had to really work at trying to temper the response to the situation.  Honestly, if I’m in a really bad mood then I can tell the kids to go to their rooms for a period so that I can come to grips with myself.  When they were younger, there was confusion as to what they might have done but continued conversation with them can help understand that there are moments when Dad needs a break as much as any of them.  They now understand that there are moments when I just tell them to go to their rooms while I regain control and that it’s nothing that they might have necessarily done themselves.

All told, it beats the stink caused by spreading the toxicity through the household.

Lesson #4:  Dad’s Follow-through is Crucial

Apart from provider and caretaker, the largest fatherhood job is role-model; demonstrating how a man should act and behave.  One of the keystones to being a good role-model is credibility and the groundwork for that arises out of keeping your word.  And while it flows through all aspects of fatherhood, this reputation for follow-through will be especially important when it comes to maintaining discipline.

This reputation starts with the simplest things from your kid’s youngest age.  Following through on a simple request.  Can we go to the park?  Will you read to me?  Can we play a game?  Will you help me build a fort?  The request’s timing is frequently poor, balanced against the press of the daily "to-do" list and the demands/requests of others.  But you must gain this reputation.

I have to fight saying "in a little while" since there’s a disconnect between what a child and an adult consider "a little while".  A child has a short attention span and when you come to her a bit later to fulfill your promise, you’re liable to find that she’s gone on to the next thing; and while it’s unfair, in her mind, you haven’t followed through.  Enough instances of this and a pattern is set, even if they’re too young to remember individual events.  Yet if you do what they ask when they ask, you’ll have problems finishing those things that really have to be done.

While the sheer frequency of requests diminishes as they age, the requests grow more intricate and time-intensive.  Will you take me around to sell for a fundraiser?  Can you help me build a Pinewood Derby car?  Can you help me learn how to drive?  Will you look over this essay that I wrote?  You want these requests to come your way  but they won’t if there’s no reliance on you keeping your word.

So what can you do to help yourself follow-through, and still get things done?

  • Avoid indefinite phrases like "in a bit" or "in a while".  Since small children don’t tell time, tie it to something definite and definable like "when I’m done raking" or "after we’ve cleaned up after dinner".
  • Learn to build kid-time into what you’re doing.  Expect interruptions and allow time for them or even better, allow time to include them in what you’re doing right then if possible.  If time is short, make arrangements to have the kids kept busy; I’ve hired a sitter for the occasions that I have to do something without interruption.
  • Keep a "wish" list and for longer term projects, schedule them on the daily calendar.  I once built a cigar-box banjo for one of m children and explicitly set aside time for gathering the materials and then assembling it.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no if you have to.  If there’s no way to get to something, say no to that request and put it on the schedule.  If he request is simply beyond your capability or time, it’s better to say no instead of starting something that engenders more heartache than it’s worth.

Be patient with yourself; this is a long-term balancing act and even the best gymnast falls. 

Oh, and the banjo?  He still has it in his closet eight years later.

Lesson #3:  Your Child is a Blank Slate

There are a few things that your child will have to master on his own, like learning how to make a tight seal around Mom’s nipple to better nurse.  Or learning how to hold his head steady when he’s about a month old.  And figuring out how to grasp objects in his tiny hands.

But almost everything else will be learned from you, Mom and others, and you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that he naturally understands how to do the simplest things.  To your child, events and activities are akin to individual photos that they’ve placed on the vellum board inside their head.  One of your primary jobs is to help him learn to connect the photos so that they develop coherency, a context in which to grow and learn to think. 

Children learn in different ways.  And as they grow and develop you’ll have to learn to use those different ways of teaching.  First, just doing the basic things time and again so that they learn as they watch – and they will watch.  Later, helping them and explaining as you demonstrate.  Later still, letting them do something as you stand nearby.  There are no hard and fast rules as to which is best for a particular child or situation, so be patient with him.  And yourself.

One of the adjustments that I had to make was to learn to build additional time into the schedule of daily life.  Time to account for the childhood stuff that comes up – squabbles, bumps and cuts, questions, fears and play.  Several years ago, I built concrete steps and a walkway out front.  Obviously, there was a schedule but I didn’t account for the fact that one of my children wanted to help, and in a very material way.  It is one of my great regrets that in the effort to accomplish the job, I did a poor job of allowing him to contribute and was at times unnecessarily brusque. 

And I’ve had to learn to routinely ask them, especially after a new situation:  What did you notice?  What happened?  Do you understand what occurred?  And even if they say that they do, I ask them to explain what they saw just to make sure.  It’s not uncommon to find that while they can describe what they saw, they don’t understand the meaning.

And finally, understand that they learn simply by watching you.  Which means that if you do a good job of biting your tongue and maintaining your temper, they’ll never notice; but they will notice the times that things slip.  So when your preschooler turns the corner into the next supermarket aisle and exclaims "what the hell is that?" , then you need to be careful when you ask where he learned the language.

 Because unlike an Etch-a-Sketch, there’s no erasing this slate.


Father’s Lesson #2:  Uphold the Mother

Remember this:  Uphold your kid’s mother.  Even when you’re on the outs, uphold her to the kids.  Although it’s lesson #2, it’s actually the hardest to put into practice, and especially if the marriage is over.  But it has to happen.

Likewise, you should expect the same from the mother.  Hear that, ladies?

Why is this so important?

First, young kids aren’t stupid and they’ll see that marriages founder and families break up.  Even if your marriage is solid, snide remarks or complaints about your other half will cause concerns.  When my wife and I called the two eldest kids together to tell them of pregnancy #3, our daughter’s first question on coming in was whether we were going to get a divorce.  Why?  A friend’s parents had called her in similarly to tell her of their plan to end their marriage.  Growing up can be hard enough, don’t make it unnecessarily harder.

Second, each parent – Mom and Dad – deserve to be given respect by the other.  Kids will realize soon enough that the ‘rents aren’t perfect, and there’s no need to hasten that along or magnify the existing imperfections.

Third, and this feeds off of the second, kids are remarkably calculating.  They inhabit a world of egocentrism that only later gives way to a larger view – if it does at all.  To denigrate Mom – especially if she’s home with the kids – will only give them additional means to exploit any parental cracks for their own ends.  And this can only foster more problems for you, too.

Finally, adulthood can exist in remarkable shades of gray.  Unfortunately, children see in stark black and white.  They cannot comprehend the stresses and tensions that inhabit adult relationships and to expose them to such in any casual way is to potentially overwhelm them.  There’s a difference between a careful, planned explanation and an impromptu remark or slam.

There are difficult periods in any relationship, even if your mate is your best friend.  Don’t create additional problems by losing your cool in a momentary pique.

Father’s Lesson #1:  Your Life is no longer your own (and ceased at the moment of conception)

Wrap your head around the fact that your life is now very different from what it was before.  The idea of thinking in terms of three is easier for your mate since she’s driven by in-born nesting instincts with which you are simply not equipped.

You probably noticed a change in your mate when she found out that she was pregnant.  Some of these changes are insidious and others more apparent.  In many instances, she changes her diet either because of nutrition or her stomach just can’t handle the food.  She might change exercise and health regimens and re-examine recreational activities.  If you missed these, you’ll understand when you find that she’s painted the nursery in bilious, glossy primary colors.

The pregnancy can be a delightful, insightful, confusing and stressful time for the expectant father.  Find a good source of information – What to Expect When You’re Expecting is the bible – and pay close attention to your mate.  Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father is another good source, written from the dad’s perspective.

While she will probably want to handle the more personal issues, take a different view and help create the structure within which she can build the nest.  Do you have a will and durable power of attorney?  Does she?  These mundane, boring boilerplate issues matter because you are now thinking for a third – and utterly helpless – person.  Who will care for your child?  Will they be responsible for financial management of the estate as well?  What are the appropriate financial needs if either of you, or both, die?  Is there sufficient insurance to provide for these contingencies?

Even after your new child arrives, there will be major differences.  There are huge domestic demands for caring for a baby, both in the child’s personal care as well as meeting the requirements of running the house.  The together time – romantic or otherwise – is probably going to suffer so don’t take it personally.  And earlier decisions that were previously simple must now account for the child.  Want to eat out?  Can we afford it and can we take Junior along?  If not, where can I find a dependable babysitter and can we afford her – or him?  Going to visit a friend’s home?  With Junior crawling/toddling, do we need to take a gate?  What other hazards are there?  You get the drift.

To get past this, you just have to be prepared to step up and take greater domestic responsibility.  It eases her stress level and strengthens your bonds in this new phase, which puts you in a better relationship for when the kids are a bit more self-sufficient.  The nature of the questions and concerns will change, but the idea of thinking for three, or more, will continue.

And if this bothers you, at least be glad that you and your mate aren’t Praying Mantises.