I’m a dad and love it. That’s not to say I fully understand it or know how to do it. But still, I love it.
For the most part, I am a long distance father. Three of our four children live in North Carolina. Only one is here in New York. She’s married to a fine young man, so she requires a little less paternal advice than the other three. All that is to note that life as a father has changed appreciably since the kids were little and (a) constantly present and (b) undeniably dependent. Still, there are certain things expected of those of us who call ourselves “fathers,” no matter the ages or locations of our children.
For starters, I think we are called upon to be sources of reason. (Note: Moms usually tend to be better at that, as at most other things, but that still does not let us dads off the hook.) When a child is facing a decision of significant importance, and especially when that child asks for our opinion, we should be able to contribute in a healthy and life-enhancing way. Autocratic answers are rarely healthy and life-enhancing. There are exceptions to that, of course. If a four-year-old child asks to ride her tricycle in the street, a one-word answer is required: “No.” That should be followed by a loving explanation, but the decision is non-negotiable. Twenty years later, however, if that same daughter asks whether to attend grad school or accept a specific job offer, the rules of encounter have changed. We no longer dictate. Instead, we help the child explore her options. “What are the advantages of either decision? What are the disadvantages? Which way are you leaning, and why? Which would make you happier? Which will contribute more to your long-term goals and dreams?” The great therapist, Karl Rogers, was probably correct in teaching that most people carry their answers within themselves and simply need someone to help them discover what they already know. Wise fathers, using voices of reason, serve that purpose.
We are also called upon to be voices of encouragement. Successful people often identify a particular individual from their past who was their inspiration. And frequently they report that the person they named simply said to them over and over: “I believe in you. You can do and become anything you choose.” A simple spirit of encouragement enabled the recipients to overcome potential obstacles of fear or self-doubt and forge lives of remarkable achievements. How difficult is it for any father to become a voice who says to our children, “I believe in you”?
Most of all, to be sure, we are called upon to be models of behavior. Role models. Examples. Do-as-I-do influences. Cain Kilby Clark, the Mommyhood Mentor, wrote: “At some point in (our children’s) lives, what they have witnessed us doing is likely to become the path they will take. It is critical to choose the life you would want your child to replicate; because our children are watching.” (The Huffington Post, September 30, 2013) If there were a daddyhood mentor, he should make precisely that same point. We can lecture our children about integrity, but if they observe us cheating our customers or lying to our friends, then all our words about integrity will be no more than “noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.” (I Corinthians 13:1) We can talk to our kids about kindness, but if they witness us speaking to their mothers in demeaning or unkind fashions, then the lessons we sought to teach meant nothing. They can hear us tuning in to our favorite love songs on Pandora or YouTube, but if we have no time for them, show no interest in their interests, are consistently absent when they need us, and do not know how to express love in deeds or words, then love is a lesson they will not learn from their fathers. And Love is the most critical virtue we can ever pass along to our children. Ms. Clark’s wise counsel is something we dads need to hear: “It is critical to choose the life you would want your child to replicate; because our children are watching.”
Many years ago, the late Dan Fogelberg wrote and sang a beautiful song as a tribute to his father. It was called “The Leader of the Band.” In it he sang of the lessons he learned from his dad, the strength he saw in him, and the love he felt from him. The refrain included lyrics reminding listeners how Fogelberg simply sought to emulate all that goodness in his own adult journey. He sang: “My life’s a living legacy to the leader of the band.”
If I could sing, I would echo those words about my dad. Till his dying day, he was my hero, my mentor, and my best friend. To me, because of him, the very word “father” is nearly sacred. That’s the legacy those of us who are privileged to be dads should strive to create – a legacy of reason, encouragement, example, and most of all love.