By Guest Blogger Ed Jones
During my 60-plus years on this wondrous and wacky planet, I’ve been called a lot of different names.
There have been the lovely, self-esteem-building middle school names: “Dumbo Ears.” “Pinocchio Nose.” “Ferret Face.”
There’ve also been some funny and even endearing monikers: “Basketball Jones.” “Sideways” (don’t ask). “Lambcakes.” “Shuggy-shack.”
But my favorite name of all is the simplest: “Dad.”
Is there any sound on earth sweeter to a man than hearing your child say “Dada” or “Daddy” or just plain “Dad”?
So hey gramps, what’s the secret to being a good dad, you might ask? Well, I’m afraid that I haven’t the foggiest. It is the ultimate inexact science.
All I can do is offer a few pointers that seem to have worked for me. I pass them along in hopes that perhaps just one of them might be helpful to you in your quest to be a good father.
Be married to a spectacular partner, best pal, and co-parenter like I am.
Let’s face it. We men would be lost without women when it comes to parenting – and just about everything else. At least this man would.
I’m blessed to be married to a woman who has a superabundance of love for children, creativity, compassion, humor, faith, optimism, and patience. I couldn’t have been a decent dad without her showing me the way as my co-parent.
The first few years are crucial.
Years before I became a dad, I read an article somewhere which in essence said that the first two to three years of a child’s life has a determinative impact on that child’s future – cognitively, psychologically, emotionally. Is the child being gently picked up and embraced by both mom and dad often enough? Is he or she being properly fed – not just with healthy, nutritious food, but also with visual and verbal stimuli? What kind of visual and tonal signals are mom and dad sending about their relationship?
I don’t know if the science behind the article has since been debunked. But I do know that my wife and I took its findings very much to heart.
Protect your child’s innocence for as long as possible.
There is a Norman Rockwell illustration that depicts a freckled, Huck Finn-like boy of about ten. I’ll never forget what one commentator said about it: “Look at the innocence on the boy’s face. Our children aren’t allowed to keep their innocence for nearly that long anymore.”
Yes, I’m aware that the America Rockwell created in his art was an idealized one. But I believe the commentator had a point.
Think about it. We now live in a world in which it’s not safe to let a child wander unaccompanied to the next aisle in a grocery store.
So here’s my suggestion: In the early formative years in particular, try to shelter your child from the ugly, violent, threatening things of this world – so the child is somehow able to grow up with a healthy sense of security.
Also, try not to use the TV or computer screen as a baby sitter. It’s not good for a child’s attention span and it can stifle creativity.
Don’t be married to your job.
When I was a cub writer working hard to make my way in the Mad Men world of advertising, I was incredibly fortunate to have a sane man named Don Jeffries as my mentor. Don was more than an incandescently brilliant creative person and a born teacher; he was my role model as a dad.
Don taught me by example how to go to the agency in the morning and unleash several staccato bursts of creativity during the workday (in between coffee breaks, talking about sports and movies, and sometimes two-hour lunches), how to get it all down on paper – the good, the bad, and the stupid – and then go home at 4:45 to do what was really important: be there for your wife and your children. If a new business pitch was in progress or a deadline was lurking and the concepts still weren’t great, you waited until the rest of the family went to bed, you lay down on your living room or den floor with a pad and a pencil in your hand, and you knocked out some more concepts until the wee hours if necessary. Creating winsome, intelligent, and honest advertising was important. But it wasn’t nearly as important as your family.
Don’t you dare love your child conditionally.
Early on in my career, and in my marriage, I felt like a fraud. I was doing some good work – I’d won a few awards – but sometimes I would hit a wall creatively. Then I’d have anxiety attacks. I was terrified of failing. And those anxiety attacks turned into depression. I was in agony; I was neglecting my sweet wife, making her feel terribly lonely and sad; and I needed help.
Providentially my mentor (yep, Don Jeffries) hooked me up with his Methodist minister, who had had some training in counseling. In one of our early sessions, the minister said, “I hear you won some awards.” I brightened a bit and said yes I had. “You know what?” he said. “I don’t care.” And he left it at that.
“Looks like our time is up.” Thanks a lot, Rev. Right?
After more sessions, during which he got to know more about my family history, the minister said something that pierced my soul: “You were never loved unconditionally.” It was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. The ensuing weeks, months, and years weren’t a walk in the park, but my mental health turnaround had begun – and I made a silent vow: If I can help it, my children will never feel that I love them conditionally.
(I was blessed with good parents. They both came of age during the Great Depression. I doubt seriously that they had been loved unconditionally themselves.)
So here’s what I told both of my boys repeatedly as they were growing up: “Your mom and I love you for who you are, not for what you do. Let me repeat that…”
Don’t raise a future narcissist.
America already has a gracious plenty of narcissists, thank you very much.
My wife had an efficient way of popping the self-importance bubble whenever it began to expand out of control: “YOU. ARE. NOT. THE. CENTER. OF. THE. UNIVERSE,” she would say.
I don’t know about you, but I wish more Americans had been told that while they were growing up.
Try to create what’s known as a “family romance.”
In other words, try to create the kind of family your children can fall in love with, and stay in love with, even through the teen years.
Eat dinner together every night at a set time every time you can. Plan and go on adventures together. Play a game called Mad-Libs. In short, do whatever it takes to create and sustain a joyful family dynamic that your children will always want to be a part of.
Try to break the chain of pathologies that may have plagued your parents and other relatives.
I’m not going to share which of the family trees the following individual pathologies came from. Suffice it to say they were present, and they didn’t have the healthiest effect on our childhoods:
Alcoholism. Verbal cruelty. Physical abuse. Racism. Religious bigotry. Infidelity. Malignant narcissism.
My wife and I never actually verbalized what our strategy was for reversing these family pathologies. We just intuitively took some steps together to try to give both of our boys the happiest childhood we possibly could.
It wasn’t until our sons were out of the house that my wife and I realized this:
While they were growing up, our sons never saw or heard my wife and me fighting – or even saying a harsh word to one another. Never. They never saw us intoxicated by alcohol or any other drug. Not once. They never heard either of us say a single vile curse word. They never heard us utter a racist word or sentiment. And they never missed a single Sunday Mass – even when our family was on vacation.
(Not that any of us is perfect or morally superior to anyone. Far from it. We all have our flaws, our struggles, and our failures. But when we do invariably fail, we are there to lift one another up.)
So how did it all turn out?
Today, our two sons are pursuing their professions in perhaps the two toughest cities in America to succeed in in their respective jobs. Our oldest, Chris, is a lawyer in Washington, DC. He earned his law degree and passed the bar while working full-time on Capitol Hill as the Legislative Director for a U.S. Congressman, and he is now VP/Counsel for the Independent Grocer Association. Our youngest, Patrick, is a gifted and accomplished actor living in New York. He earned his MFA in acting in the program that produced the likes of Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Danny Glover, and Marsha Mason. By virtue of his degree, he is qualified to teach on the college level.
Though our sons live farther away from my wife and me than they’ve ever been, we have never been closer as a family. Whenever one of us has a birthday or something else to celebrate, we invariably post tributes to one another on Facebook. And in the last few years, each of the four of us has called the other our hero.
Again, I hope just one of the nuggets that I’ve shared will be helpful to you as you try your best to be a good father. No pressure. It’s only the most important role you’ll ever play as a man.
Be careful out there, my brothers and sisters.
And go with God.
Ed Jones is a local freelance writer, editor, and creative director.
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