My two sons have been out on their own for many years. The oldest, Brian, lives in Folly Beach, South Carolina where he loves his life and work. The youngest, Jason, lives in Louisville with his wife and two-year-old daughter. He and I work for the same company. I have many reasons to be thankful as a dad for each of my boys. I am grateful for the life lessons they taught me as we experienced this father-son thing by trial and error over many years. I hope there are some important lifelong lessons they have learned from me, either from my good example or from their resolve not to follow my bad example.
It isn’t possible to go back and redo one’s life as a parent, and I don’t sit around beating myself up for what I didn’t do well. That would be pointless. Every parent does some things well and other things poorly. However, I can’t help but reflect on the whole experience from time to time and think of things I would change if I had the chance to do it all over again. This post reflects on those changes. Perhaps some of the following will resonate with new dads or dads-to-be in a way that encourages them to avoid my mistakes. Of course, the principles apply to moms and moms-to-be as well. Maybe there is still time for me to take my own advice in years to come as opportunities arise.
While there are things I think I did well, this post is about what I would do different, so here they are:
1. Commit to fewer things outside the home. Kids need time with their parents, so parents need to realize that once they make the decision to bring children into this world, nurturing, raising, educating and shaping those children is now a significant priority for the next couple of decades (at least).
I’m one who likes to commit to a lot of tasks, pushing myself to accomplish much. That is still evident in the post from earlier this year about my goals for 2013. I’m already thinking about some significant goals for 2014. As a result, time at home and time with my boys suffered from such commitments. It is still really hard for me to just have down time to chill. For example, I multitask if the TV is on by checking various websites or social media sites, jogging in place to make sure I reach 10,000 steps for the day, doing some mindless chores or plowing through emails that have piled up. But to just sit and enjoy some show or movie? Not likely.
The danger with such a bent toward multitasking and over-committing is that you can see your child as just one more demand on your schedule competing for limited time that is already spread too thin. It doesn’t help that people are typically having children when they are young and also eager to climb the corporate ladder or establish themselves professionally. Competition for attention is built in to the stage of life. No wonder our hair turns gray. We earn it.
There were too many times when I inwardly considered requests from my sons to play or do something else as a hindrance in me getting other things done that were on my list. My boys should never have a reason to think that they are an interruption or not as important as other things I’m doing. They are potentially the most significant mark I will leave on this planet when I’m gone, so why would I not invest the most time possible in them? They deserve it because of who they are and because I love them.
2. Be slow to anger. Parenting is tough and it can be very tiring. Heck, life can be tiring with or without kids. It is easier to react emotionally and inappropriately when you’re tired or frustrated, and I know I did that too often raising my boys (reminder: once is too often for this behavior). I remember times when there was fear in their eyes and body language because I lost control, yelling at them or spanking too harshly. What made me angriest was disobedience. I believe it’s OK to spank, but not out of anger and not excessively.
If I had little ones around again, I’d work harder to remain in control of my emotions. I’d know to keep my mouth shut at the height of a potentially explosive moment, excusing myself while I found a way to calm down before speaking or acting in a way I would later regret. I would never want to be the reason for fear in the eyes of my kids. As their dad, I need to be a safe haven, a protector, a solid rock they turn to for security, not some out-of-control maniac frightening them with his anger. They deserve better than that.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression and make anyone think such behavior was a daily or frequent occurrence in our home. It wasn’t. But the few times I can recall it happening were still wrong and I wish I had been slower to anger, even when they disobeyed. Children don’t know what we know or have the same priorities and perspectives we have, nor should we expect them to. They’re kids. We need to remember that.
3. Love their mother more. It’s important for children to see their parents love one another, support each other, be kind to each other, be friends with each other, maturely resolve conflicts, and model the kind of relationship you hope the children one day grow up to have with their spouses. While I love my wife of nearly 34 years, she and I are extremely different in many significant ways. That opens the door to us doing our own things separately with much of our time, sometimes making fun of those differences or even being irritated by them.
What did our children think about and what did they learn from the relationship Linda and I modeled in the home? It is sobering to realize that the example we set is what our children are going to grow up thinking is normal. What we say about such relationships doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as the example we set in the home day after day. Was that example consistent with what we said? Was I the spouse I should have modeled for my boys? Sometimes I got it right, but I know many times I did not.
4. Be more of a spiritual leader. There is a big difference between being active in one’s church or religious community and being a spiritual leader in the home. As one who was in a ministerial role during some of my sons’ formative years, I know I lived out my faith in a number of ways, but did I do a good job in the home? Did I talk about matters of faith in everyday circumstances when teachable moments arose? Did I pray with and for my boys enough? Did I lead my family in devotions and clearly explain the gospel to them in word and in deed (and, yes, explaining the gospel takes words, not just a good example)?
As a Christian who understands far more about matters of faith today than when my boys were young, I’d sure like a do-over in this area because I think I did a poor job. Like many parents, I put too much emphasis on what the boys should be learning and doing in church as opposed to what I should be teaching them in the home. I have since captured in black and white what I believe to be the heart of my faith and shared it with them in personal hand-written letters, but that isn’t the same when they are adults as what you might do over many formative years when they are under the same roof.
Ultimately, each person makes his/her own decisions in matters of faith. What parents do or do not do is no guarantee of what their children will grow up to believe or how they will behave. Still, the proverb to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) rings true as good advice today for parents who care about influencing their children’s spiritual life. To abdicate that responsibility for any reason, especially the currently popular notion of not wanting to influence the child in religious/spiritual matters, is not an option for one who cares about parenting in a manner consistent with biblical principles. I didn’t abdicate the responsibility, but I didn’t fulfill it as well as I could have, either.
When I ponder how I might sum up in one statement what I would do different as a dad if I had the chance to do it over, I think I’d summarize by saying this…
I’d take them fishing more often.
Wait! Hear me out… My boys loved to fish just as I did as a boy. They were fascinated by it and loved it when their Grandpa would take them on occasion. When I look at the items listed above, this one act captures the essence of what I would do different in a practical way:
- More fishing together would mean fewer non-family-time commitments outside the home.
- It’s hard to get angry with your boys when you’re sitting on the side of a pond enjoying nature and experiencing the excitement of that nibble or catch.
- Sometimes the most loving thing a dad can do for a mom is to take the kids away for some father-son time and leave Mom to rest or catch her breath, joyful that her husband and children are out having fun and bonding. I would invite her to go fishing, too, but I don’t think she’d be much interested.
- When waiting for the fish to bite, you have to talk about something, and what better to talk about in such a setting than our awesome Creator and His magnificent world, how He loves us and what He expects from us?
A few decades ago, I confess that I might have considered spending time fishing as a bother and a waste of time when there was so much else to be done. I regret that. My boys needed that experience and time with me, and I needed it with them. My sons and I did have fun and still do. I think I have a very good relationship with both of them, but it could have been better earlier if I had done something as simple as taking them fishing more often.
If you’re the parent of young children or you expect to be in the future, be the best parent and spouse in the present that you can be. Learn from the mistakes and experiences of others before your kids are grown and out of the house. You don’t get a do-over raising your children.