I ask myself every day if I’m a good father. I’m encouraged by the fact that my kid seems to love me on most days and my wife hasn’t left me yet, but I probably won’t know for another twenty years whether I actually did a good job or not. On paper, I exceed the ridiculously low bar that has been set for us dads—I’m gainfully employed and come straight home from work every day; I rarely drink and never to excess; I cook dinner and help out with chores around the house; I drop off and pick up our daughter from pre-school when it’s my turn; I do my share of packing lunches, getting the kid dressed in the morning, putting her pajamas on at night, and overseeing bath time and bedtime routines.
But I don’t know that any of that actually makes me a good father. Asking myself if I’m truly doing my fair share of the daily parenting tasks is important, but that’s as much about making sure I’m a good partner to my wife as it is about whether or not I’m being a good dad. Unfortunately, the questions I regularly ask myself tend to be more existential than “Did I do my share of packing lunches this week?” and don’t always have a clear answer.
1. Am I giving my daughter my complete and undivided attention?
I’m not talking about making her the center of attention 100 percent of the time; I feel strongly that she needs to learn to entertain herself, especially when I actually have other things I need to tend to. This question is more about asking myself if I’m actually engaging with her. I sometimes (always!) find it hard to tear myself away from the tablet/laptop/smartphone or other distraction that is preventing me from actually spending quality time with her. I catch myself telling her “just five more minutes!” so I can finish whatever unimportant thing I’m editing on my laptop, or impulsively checking my phone the entire time we’re actually doing anything together.
Part of the problem is that I suck at playing with her. She has a three-year-old’s attention span. She cheats at everything. She’d rather scatter Legos on the floor than build the final product to specification. I keep telling myself I’ll be better at interacting with her when she’s older and able to understand the games and toys I like, but I know that’s not a valid excuse for not participating now, when she so obviously and enthusiastically wants me to This honest, wholehearted enthusiasm for my presence in her world is a stage that will quickly pass; if I stare at my phone too long, I’ll look up one day and notice that she’s locked in her room, sulking and spending all her time on whatever futuristic naked chat app the teenagers of her day will be horrifying their parents with.
But this isn’t just about assuaging some future “Cat’s in the Cradle” remorse for missing her childhood. I want her to know now, without a doubt, that I think she’s interesting and fun, and that I value her opinion and respect her. I don’t want her to grow up thinking it’s appropriate and normal to be ignored by those who are closest to her. It’s challenging, because we live in a smartphone/tablet culture now, but blaming these particular distractions is too easy—past generations of parents didn’t have these cool gizmos, but they were just as distracted as we are, with their old fashioneds, hi fi stereos, and late nights in the city working on advertising pitches for Mohawk Airlines. But it doesn’t have to be like that. If I can demonstrate to her that she is more important to me than my hobbies and devices, maybe she’ll return the favor when she’s older. OK, probably not, but I at least have to try.
2. Am I too focused on my own routine?
I have to be at work by a certain time every day. I have dinner to cook, lunch to pack and toys to pick up at home. I have TV shows to watch with the wife. I have approximately fifteen minutes a day, after everyone else is in bed, to exhaustedly attempt to save the universe with my Xbox controller. So, yeah, I become irritable and grumpy when someone messes up that routine by not wanting to wear pants, or throwing a fit because the snack she just demanded isn’t what she actually wanted, or deciding that she doesn’t ever, ever, ever want to go to pre-school again as she clings to me like a deranged koala, causing me to be late for the seventeenth time this month.
What I’m learning is that the more I insist she “hurry up” or “stop doing x” because of a time constraint she has neither capacity nor desire to comprehend, the more she stalls and the more upset I become. This triggers a vicious cycle where my visible frustration upsets her, causing the delay to grow; my increased panic about time frustrates me even more, and the cycle continues, causing me to be even later and twice as grumpy. I know that I need to build in schedule buffers to account for potential meltdowns, but that’s just not always possible. I really need to be more zen about the whole thing. I need to remind myself that she’s only three and a half years old. I need to not take it so personally when she refuses to stick to what she no doubts sees as an arbitrary schedule. Most importantly, I need to remember to keep our routine fun for her. On those occasions where I actually manage to nail all of that, things tend to run MUCH more smoothly for both of us.
3. Am I setting a good example?
One of my father’s favorite expressions was “Do as I say, not as I do.” Even as a young child, the irony of this sentiment was not lost on me, and now that I’m a parent myself, I regularly find myself on the verge of using this exact same maxim with my daughter. While it was terribly cute when, at 18 months, she dropped her first f-bomb (parroted back after witnessing me slam my finger in a drawer), it is significantly less funny now to hear her mutter “dammit” under her breath when she gets frustrated with one of her toys. She pays not the slightest bit of attention when I try to teach her valuable life lessons, but she is the world’s most absorbent sponge when it comes to soaking up the behavior I model. I need to rethink everything from the words I use, to the habits I have, to the junk I eat. Either that, or I need to get more comfortable with “Do as I say, not as I do,” and start preparing myself now for the inevitable, heartbreaking encounter that ends with “I learned it by watching you, Dad!”
4. Am I being patient enough?
Patience. Of all the qualities that make a good parent, this is the one I struggle with most. I don’t know how it’s possible for someone so small, so vulnerable, and so damned adorable to so quickly trigger reactions from the darkest depths of my lizard brain. For whatever reason, it’s way too easy for her to lead me down the rabbit hole, from which I emerge, face purple, fists clinched, deep in the midst of a battle of wills (that I will never win) over something as ultimately ridiculous as my insistence that she eat two more bites of hot dog before she gets another peach.
At last count, she had committed at least one thousand, four hundred fifty seven acts that would have earned me a spanking when I was a kid. My wife and I both want to raise our daughter without ever resorting to corporal punishment, but there have been at least one thousand, four hundred fifty seven times that our child has pushed me to the point of questioning my commitment to this principle. “I never behaved like this when I was her age,” I lie to myself. In actuality, I know I was actually capable of much worse behavior than she’s ever exhibited.
My parents did their best and I don’t doubt that the firm discipline and occasional spankings I received as a child helped shape who I am today, but honestly, the main thing I remember is living in fear that I would get caught and subsequently punished for an action or behavior that I was often too young or too immature to control. I do want our daughter to have discipline. I want her to be respectful of others, to not be wasteful, and to clean up after herself. But I also want to do my best to teach her these principles patiently, without relying on fear and intimidation. Situations arise almost daily where I feel like no other option is left, when I guiltily think to myself that a spanking might provide a quick fix to some momentarily naughty behavior. However, my wife and are committed to the path of patience, so…deep breaths…patience…more deep breaths…
5. Am I letting her become her own person or am I trying too hard to impose my own goals and aspirations?
So far, this has been easy for me, but it’s definitely going to be a bigger challenge in the years to come. I know that fifteen years from now our daughter will be the starting center for the University of Texas Lady Longhorns and four years after that will become the first female starter in the NBA; in fact, I really ought to be working with her right now on fundamentals and conditioning.
Unfortunately (fortunately!), having an independent, opinionated, strong-willed child makes it impossible for either my wife or me to force her to do much of anything she isn’t interested in doing. There are so many cool things I want to share with my daughter (basketball, video games, college football, photography, politics, re-runs of Buffy, They Might Be Giants albums, Encyclopedia Brown books), but I want to be just as enthusiastic about seeing the world through her eyes. I want to get excited about the things that she gets excited about, and support her no matter what silly sport (soccer) she decides to play instead of my beloved basketball or even if (please, no) she decides not to pursue a sport at all.
My biggest challenge will be figuring out the right balance between passively observing as she discovers her passions and aggressively encouraging her to pursue the sport or instrument I think she ought to learn. And even when she does pick a thing to learn, I have no idea how I’ll know when it’s ok to let her give up versus insisting that she stick with it and forcing her to diligently practice every day. For every successful gymnast/pageant winner/pianist grateful that her parents pushed her to succeed, I’m sure there are 57 others with strained parental relationships for the exact same reason. Twenty years from now, I hope to have a daughter who still knows I love her and am proud of her no matter what, even if she’s not the NBA All-Star I know she has the potential to become.
6. Am I remembering to not give a crap about what other people think?
This is a hard one for me. I spent the first forty years of my life silently judging pretty much every parent I ever encountered, particularly those whose children were loud, unruly, and possessing of no manners or proper decorum whatsoever. I naively swore that no child of mine would ever behave like the unwashed troublemakers and malcontents who so often disrupted my routine in restaurants, movie theaters and airplanes. Of course, now that I have one of these loud, attention-seeking sociopaths of my own, I have no doubt that I am being judged every single time I take my child into public, and not only by the intolerant, childless child haters who take every public encounter with a curious tot as an affront to their own personal liberty, but also by those parents—you know, the ones who are so obviously and smugly certain that they are doing it better than you. Even though I know these overly exaggerated caricatures might not actually exist, the thought that they might be out there scrutinizing my every move is more than enough to impact the way I parent.
Here’s an example: I believe that expressing proper gratitude is important and I make every effort possible to ensure our daughter uses “please” and “thank you” when appropriate, to the point that I find myself reflexively correcting her every single time she forgets to do so. What I wrestle with is my motivation for publicly correcting a three-year-old for not using proper etiquette. Am I doing this as reinforcement so that she’ll eventually behave properly, or am I doing this because I don’t want the other adults in the room to judge me? She’s only going to be a kid once, so why is it so damned important for me to publicly correct her simply because she got so excited about something that she acted like a child instead of the little adult I assume everyone else expects her to be?
7. Have I made her laugh today?
Of all the things I worry about, this is the one question I make a conscious effort to ask myself every single day. When I’m able to make her cheeks light up, to elicit those tiny giggles or gasping-for-breath belly laughs; when her laughter in turn makes me laugh so hard that we both lose it; when she gives me that perfectly genuine smile that only appears when she’s laughing and her eyes twinkle in that way that melts my heart every single time; when we are deep in a moment that is just the two of us sharing something special and for that split second when nothing else in the world matters except that she and I both know we are happy and loved, it’s then that I know for sure: no matter how bad I’m screwing everything else up, I’m at least getting this one thing right.
(Author’s note: It took six weeks to write this, because someone kept interrupting my work by insisting that I come play with her.)