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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

7 dadly sins

Kid-centrism.

I'll stipulate that the children are important. If one of them needs first aid, prepping that quarterly report on market share in exurbia waits till later. But though the kids are the most important things in your life, they shouldn't be the only important things in your life. It's easy in these kid-obsessed days for a man to hobble his kids by giving them too much attention.

It was probably a mistake for me to sit through every performance of the fourth-grade health pageant at the Riverside School. Sure, a good father might sit through the show twice. But four times? Including the matinee? No, that crossed the line from support to slavishness, and sent, I think, two destructive messages. First, that the fully grown man known as Dad has no other life, and second, that they can't hit their marks without my clapping.

Kids benefit from the role model of a man in full, a guy with a 360-degree life, packed with obligations. Kids need two things: attention and time out of the dad spotlight. An excess of care may build so-called self-esteem, which is useless, at the expense of self-reliance, which is gold.

Yakety-yakosity.

Scenario: A 4-year-old climbs onto Grandma's dining-room table and starts swatting the chandelier. He ignores instructions to get down and, when he's forcibly removed, goes ballistic. Now, here's the point at which I and other good men have gone down a dark dead end: We start explaining. A moment that should be as simple as an adult disciplining a savage turns into a seminar on the purpose of furniture, Nana's love of antiques, the physics of weight-bearing, and yakyakyak, and oh my God, won't somebody just snarl, "Because I said so."

First, it's a waste of breath. Kids' neurons can't listen to reason. A 4-year-old has never replied, "Oh, I see, Dad. Thanks for talking that through with me." Moreover, children don't want you to explain. Try to imagine that you're three feet tall and the six-foot-tall guy who is supposed to be in charge acts as though he needs you to sign on with his decision. Hmmm…does the captain need a nod from the fellas in the engine room? Small children flourish when they have a sense that Dad knows what he's doing. And most important, it offends the universe for a grown man to explain himself to a child, unless--and when this happens, it will be a first--the child instantly complies with instructions and later asks politely why you were so adamant. And yes, they have to use the word adamant.

Ref abuse.

Thou shalt never shout, "Come on, ref, let 'em play." This isn't Tar Heels vs. Hoyas. The kids weigh 44 pounds! Nor, according to their mother, shalt Dad ever stand in the bleachers and make the fist-rolling motion for traveling or the palm-to-the-back-of-the-head signal for an offensive foul on Caitlin.

Objectivity.

Don't be clear-eyed about your team; Dad promotes blind loyalty. We were 8 and 9 years old when my brother and I reported that Kevin had taken the worst of a school-yard fight. When my father inquired as to my whereabouts, and learned that I was among the spectators, he soliloquized that in the future I might not want to stand by and watch my brother take a beating. Sure, he understood the so-called rules that forbade intrusion into a one-on-one. Never mind all that. If an O'Neill is being hammered, another O'Neill rides to the rescue. That's it. Period! No dad worth anything lets his family legend unfurl without promoting unreasonable loyalty. Dad is not objective. He's a zealot.

Pedestalism.

I know at least two praiseworthy fathers--good, tenderhearted men--who missed some of the nectar of family life because their kids admired them too much. They were way up there on a pedestal while Mom and the kids were having fun down in the trenches with the regular people. Nobody doubts that our culture could use more fathers who are much admired. Especially during adolescence, a dad with gravitas keeps kids from flying off into space. But a man has to be careful not to turn into a marble bust looming over a flesh-and-blood family. When you mess up, 'fess up. No, don't admit the depths of your follies, but offer up the shallows of your shortcomings. A self-effacing story, even an apology, is a liberating thing and can make Dad an admirable person rather than a revered icon.

Either/or-itis.

In disciplinary situations, never offer a choice. The moment I yelled, "Untie your sister right now or there's no Nintendo for a week!" I not only betrayed the memory of strong fathers across time, but I also destroyed the next three years of my life. The either/or structure suggested that compliance was merely a cost-benefit analysis, in which my 6-year-old weighed the pleasure of continuing to mistreat his sister against the pain of a few days without his video game. My son knew I wasn't really offering him a choice, but still, the either/or construct implied that my authority derived from control of household electronics rather than from…well, my authority. If a man has any hope of enjoying the first eight to 10 years of being Dad, he'll need a voice that can, when necessary, stop the mayhem in an instant. Either/or nibbles away at that authority.

Mr. Momism.

The trend in parenting is away from gender-specific assignments. These days, Mom is often enough the one who brings home the bacon for Dad to fry it up in a pan. This blurring of parent gender lines is to the good. But raising kids isn't entirely gender neutral. Mom and Dad aren't interchangeable. Mom tends to be more sensitive, more empathetic, better at juggling the details of kid life. Now, I'm not a knuckle-dragger. I understand that plenty of women are grossly insensitive and bad planners while lots of guys are great quarter­masters and good at soothing words. But even an insensitive brute like me can be a solid-gold parent, by sharing his male energy. Sure, this is a vague term, but who can doubt that father zest has something to do with boldness, with exuberance, with giving kids a sense of their robustness, of their own agency in the world. Moms can feature these flavors too. But just as sympathy isn't our home field, barbarism isn't theirs. Dad is better suited to high spirits, to big laughter, to stories about large panthers and rushing rivers. Our culture encourages men to subdue their boyishness, their urgency. Don't do it. Let your Y chromosome inform your stewardship. Lead with a big-picturism that commends the kids to the generosity of the world.

There are a million ways to do fatherhood right. It can be done big and blustery or small and quiet, and maybe best of all, in a calibrated combo. The geniuses are the jazz musicians, the guys who are at home in a slow, smooth groove and on the wings of a wild Sonny Rollins solo. To be the best father he might be, a fella needs pride of gender, a willing heart, and the sense to know that a child needs a good look, for better or worse, at an authentic man. source

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