My boys have taught me more than I could have ever taught them.
Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I celebrated the way most dads do: I slept in, watched the U.S. Open (briefly pausing to enjoy the Canadian Grand Prix), and cooked outside, where meat reigned supreme. I became a father in October of 2002 when Drew and Mitch entered the world in Greenwich, CT. I can still feel the overwhelming fear and panic that set in when we brought them home a few days later. How in the world was I qualified to be a father – let alone a father of twins?
I did what most new fathers do: I asked some friends who were recent dads, picked up a few books that I never read, and applied the things I liked about my own dad while changing the things I didn’t. In other words, I did the best I could. While a simple Google search will give you a billion different “crucial life lessons that every dad should teach their kids,” those tips aren’t exactly a blueprint for being a successful dad.
As my boys continue to hurtle toward adulthood, I realize I learned more from them than they could ever have learned from me. With that in mind, here are six lessons I’ve learned from my boys that have made me a better dad and person:
They remember HOW I spoke more than what I said. No one likes to be yelled at or otherwise intimidated. Early on – especially when I was overwhelmed with the fact they were twins – I thought might was right. I was the boss, the boys were subordinate, and I had to play the “because I said so” card to get them to do what I wanted. I learned early on that this approach to parenting led to division and little else. Thankfully, kids are quick to forgive. I changed my strategy by always speaking to them with respect – even when they were very young: kneeling down to get on their level, speaking quietly instead of loudly, and always looking them squarely in the eyes.
It’s better to be embarrassed by my kid’s behavior than to have them exasperated by mine. Any parent will tell you that the most frustrating times happen when kids don’t behave in public. Let’s be honest, it’s just not fun when a tiny human loses their mind in a restaurant or a grocery store. Those meltdowns got under my skin more than they should have until I realized I was basing my identity on what others (and, in many cases, strangers) might think about my parenting ability. When I approached those situations doing things I mentioned in number one, the boys would take the meltdown to another level because I engaged them in a “might is right” battle where there was no winner. I learned from them the best course of action was to take a deep breath, pick them up, take them away from the situation and calmly resolve their behavior outside the pressure-packed view of others.
Parenting by grace is better than parenting by the law. As a dad, I learned that the more rules I set, the more my boys would fail and the more frustrated I would get. If Drew and Mitch were constantly being punished for their failures because of my arbitrary rules, they would never know what it’s like to have a loving dad who accepts them for who they are and loves them anyway. In other words, kids need to be kids. Of course, there should be rules and boundaries, but not for every little thing.
Training their hearts is more important than trapping them at home. I always felt one of my main jobs was protecting the boys, which was WAY easier when they were young and confined to the house. Kids love being at home when they’re little. Then they became teenagers and wanted their freedom, just like I wanted mine at that age. If, for the 15 years before they got their driver’s licenses, all I have done is confine them, make decisions for them, and shelter them from their mistakes, when they get this new-found freedom, they may not be ready for all the decisions they will have to make. Sandy and I made a conscious decision not to have a ton of rules but instead help the boys think through situations, consider benefits and consequences, and make decisions with a thought to the future and not just the present. Don’t get me wrong, we did have some rules, but we wanted them to learn to think and act out of a desire to do the right thing more than we wanted them to learn to avoid punishment at home.
A full house is better than a full refrigerator. Kids want their freedom, but they also like to eat. In the case of boys, they like to eat a lot. We always wanted our house to be where the boys and their friends hung out. I quickly learned that if you let kids come over and have whatever they want out of your fridge and pantry, they’ll come back for more. This probably sounds a bit silly, but it boils down to being open to kids having fun, creating a space for them, and making them feel at home by not having to ask if they can have something to drink or eat a can of Pringles. The lesson here is that the best way to influence your kids is to make their friends welcome in your home. I’d rather buy more chips and have my boys feel like they can bring friends over than have a lower grocery bill and never see who they are hanging with.
No matter what, do everything through the lens of love. In their 20 years, we have had some big fights – that’s also part of being a dad. However, even when I was at my most angry, I tried to do everything through love. Just like I did when I was young, they’ve made bonehead decisions that have resulted in losing privileges and being grounded. No matter how upset, frustrated, or even livid I was, I always told them I loved and accepted them. That didn’t mean I approved of the specific decision or behavior – not by a long shot. However, I realized that usually they felt worse about their actions (and the resulting consequences) than I did. Because of them, I learned to slow down, breathe, and let them know how much I loved them even though I was furious with them. This goes back to number three – even when they disappointed me and their mother, we loved them unconditionally.
Fatherhood is not for the faint of heart. It seems like yesterday when I found out I would be a dad. “Yesterday” was over 20 years ago, and now the boys are entering their junior year of college. I have learned so much through being their dad. Before they were born, I thought the goal was to teach them everything I knew. What I learned over time was I needed to become the man I wanted them to imitate: patient, loving, kind, fun-loving, hard-working, caring, and consistent. I’d like to think that’s the man I’ve become, and, assuming that’s the case, they have taught me far more than I’ve taught them.