On Becoming My Father
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand it. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished he had learned so much in seven years. -Mark Twain
I was about five years old when I first remember vowing to myself, “I’ll never be like my dad when I grow up.” He had just spanked me for throwing rocks at passing cars (a genetically pre-programmed behavior for most boys), and though I knew I was guilty, I didn’t appreciate him reminding me of it with his hand. His firm hand.
Through the years there were other times when I repeated my vow, like when Mom would be getting us kids ready for church and Dad would be out in the car, honking the horn and heaving those big sighs that told us we weren’t performing up to expectations. Or when he grounded me for jumping out from behind the wall and scaring my little sister (also a genetically-based behavior) with that wicked pirate Halloween mask for the fourth time in two days.
Yet I remember many more times when I felt Dad was a pretty good guy, like when he’d go out in the back yard and let me pitch to him, or when he’d take us to A&W for root beer ice cream cones. He was my favorite when he’d let me ride his route with him in the Wonder Bread truck or when he took me to an Aggie football game on a crisp fall afternoon.
My dad was my hero when he came out of “retirement” to play on the church softball team in his late 40’s, only to pull his hamstring as he “sprinted” to first base. I recall the day he sat with me playing electric football; his supernal kindness paved the way for my victory, after which I “trash talked” him with giggles as he chased me up the stairs to my bed.
I remember how proud I was to have my dad as my Little League baseball coach, or as the referee of my pick-up basketball games at the church on Saturday mornings. He was also the one who woke up early on Sunday mornings to pile the newspapers in the car and drive me around my paper route. From him I learned to save rather than spend my money, to show respect to adults, and the difference between a dangling and misplaced modifier.
It’s common for boys to, based on their childhood experience, forecast how much they’ll be like their fathers (the same goes for girls and their mothers). I believe it equally common to find that, hard as we try, we typically end up more like them than we thought we might. Our voices, our mannerisms, our ways of communicating and solving problems – we are drawn to our fathers in a powerful way.
When it comes to our children, we fathers are VIP’s, if not MVP’s. Our role is a critical one, and God gave us deep voices and an imposing presence to get our children’s attention. Our boys learn from us how to be men, how to respect women (primarily based on our interactions with their mother), how to work and how to be thrifty, kind, and brave. We teach our daughters how they should expect the male gender to treat them, the difference between standard and automatic, why lights twinkle at night, and how to do story problems.
Fathers bring a sense of security to the home, reassuring the children that all is well or, if the TV breaks, that we’ll bond in some other way (unless it’s football season, of course, in which case we’ll take out a second mortgage for the big screen model). Firmness tends to be our forté, and the kids seem to know when they’ve hit their limit by “the look” we give them.
With ties and socks as the standard gifts on Father’s Day, Johnny’s decision to surprise us with his collection of dead grasshoppers is an unforgettable treasure. We return the favor on Christmas Eve when we sneakily “forget” to shut the chimney flue (or leave the front door unlocked), allowing Santa a free run of the house. Dads are all-star wrestlers (usually in the super heavyweight division), and we specialize in all the greatest tickleholds known to man. Spending time with the kids is just the excuse we need to play a little basketball or roll around the grass in a game of rule-free football.
Because work and other commitments often make fathers elusive, the time and attention we give our children is extra special. It tells them they are our MVP’s, which gives them an increased sense of self-worth and strengthens our relationship with them. This makes our occasional strictness all the more effective, because our kids know that the consequences we give them are fair, and a sign we care.
The truth is, try as they might, our little ones won’t be able to resist the pull to become somewhat like us. If we take the time to listen to them, if we try to be a little more lenient, if we bite our tongues when upset, if we play Twister with them or give them a spontaneous standing ovation after they practice ♪The Happy Walrus ♬ on the piano for the umpteenth time . . . we just might become their heroes.
My dad was strict, he was fun, and he sure has learned a lot in the “seven years” since I was a little boy. Maybe, in some small way, I can be just like him.
Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah