Sunday, June 19, 2016

"Hey Dad" - Happy Fathers Day - 2016

I first published ‘Hey Dad’ in 2006. Over the years, I’ve had people tell me that they really liked it and had forwarded it on to others.  When I wrote this, neither of my sons were father’s themselves – now they are!  It’s the evolution of life and of family.  J

Just as the parents of my generation said how different things were when they became parents, now is no exception. I don’t think it’s easy to raise a child today (I’m referring to America but there are probably similar, and different types of challenges everywhere in the world).

I salute my sons and my daughters-in-law who, independent of each other, decided to abandon ‘TV.’  Yes, they have Netflix and the kids are permitted to watch a couple of shows after dinner (one show I particularly like watching with them is Thomas the Train).  Distractions are abundant.  “Hey Grandpa, what’s the password into your phone?” My then 3 ½ year old grandson asked me last year.  “No way”, was my response.  But, they have the passcodes into their parent’s phone – not to ‘eavesdrop’ on email conversations but to take and look at photos - and probably other stuff.  Yesterday at the Asheville Tourists  – minor league baseball team – game, a child in the row in front of me, who was probably 3, took his mom’s phone and was taking selfies of the two of them. 

As those of us fortunate to be fathers celebrating ‘our day’ I offer this piece to you – and your friends and families.  It goes so fast, time that is.  Cherish it all.  Happy Father’s Day!

Hey Dad

“Hey Dad, can you come help me with this math problem?”  Those of you who are fathers and who live with their children know exactly what this sounds like.  I lived with my sons until they were 14 and 12 and had the pleasure of experiencing what I call ‘Spontaneous Parenting’.  It’s those times when things just happen and you happen to be around.  And they’re very special.  Or at least I realized how special they are after I moved out from the house that they and their mother lived in.

It had taken me a long time to make that decision, to leave their house and separate from their mother but it ended up being good - for them at least. While the marriage was not great, the parenting and the family were good.  (2016 note: I was away a lot when the boys were growing up. Their mother, who sadly passed away last summer at 65 from a terrible cancer, in many ways was responsible for them growing up.  I always loved being a father and, during the years when I had my own consulting company had the flexibility to attend a lot of their sporting and musical events.

I remember a friend at the time moved out of his New Jersey house and left his wife and two daughters.  He just picked up one day and moved Atlanta or Florida.  And then, he just never was in contact with them anymore.  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t know this guy well but he and his wife, who was a friend of my then-wife, had become friendly and we did socialize with them (sometimes playing a great board game Pictionary).  Mostly it was their family coming over to our house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and the kids all playing in the backyard and on the wooden swing set and us ending the afternoon with a barbecue (hot dogs and hamburgers). 

That wooden swing set was something I had been seeing an ad for in the Sunday New York Times Magazine Section for years and always wanted one.  As soon as the boys were old enough (they were actually 4 and 2 when we got it) I bought that set and had it installed in the backyard.  It was a beauty:  two regular swings, a double riding type thing where you faced someone else and pushed and pulled each other into motion, a rope ladder, a platform (with optional tent) that led to a slide and was sort of a jungle gym/play place underneath.  Oh yeah, for the older kids there was a ladder that ran horizontally across the top of the whole shebang that you could walk across or hang down from and then go rung by rung. 

Anyway, so this guy always seemed like he loved his family and his children, which is why I was so surprised when I heard that he had upped and left.  The leaving is not the bad thing (after all I did it too) it’s the losing of contact with your children that I couldn’t believe.  I saw him one other time after that when I visited him on a business trip where he was living, Florida I think now.  I don’t remember if we talked about his leaving and not being in contact (after all, men don’t or didn’t, well, still don’t talk about such personal things as that) and when I did visit him he was a different guy than the guy I had originally met; or maybe, and more likely he was the same guy but I didn’t see that in him, that other part of him that was there but finally manifested itself in him leaving, really leaving, his family.  So for him, the opportunity to experience spontaneous parenting was gone. 

In my case, I did whatever I could to continue to have that experience.  When I got separated, I couldn’t afford an apartment that was big enough for the boys to stay over at but I did make a point of spending as much time as I could with them.  When I was living nearby, I picked them up for school in the mornings and took them out to dinner during the week and then spent time with them on Saturdays.  But they weren’t the ones that had separated from me.  And so their lives (and this was an important part of the whole experience) were trying to be kept as normal as possible; meaning, they were busy with their friends and with sports and with other things.   But I can tell you now, this many years later, that my interest in spending time with them never waned. (Note:  one fortunate thing about our separation and divorce. We didn't argue about who was going to get time with the kids when - like we saw in other similar situations.  The boys always knew we were on their side - and not selfishly focusing on the 'adult' stuff). 

I was lucky in that my sons didn’t think I was an intrusion when it came to their friends.  Having this relationship is not something all the parents had.  I was invited into situations that maybe other parents didn’t want to or weren’t welcome to be in and as a result I got to experience more of the ‘spontaneous parenting’ situations. Not living with them was something that I had difficulty with every day.  When I got home from work I would call them and talk with them but it wasn’t the same as being there.  I guess when you live with your kids you don’t think about things like this but when you don’t you do; and I did.

While I tried to be as much a part of their lives as I could be (even to the extent of turning down a job that would have required that I move about three hours away, just to be ‘in the neighborhood’ as it were) it wasn’t at all the same as being there.  So maybe, this moving out helped me to appreciate my children even more than I know I did when I was living with them. 

You see I always loved being a father. It has been and still is a hugely rewarding experience.  I never minded changing diapers (even ‘No. 2’) and even though I wasn’t always patient with them (if you ask them they’d say that that was one of the gross understatements in parental history) I always loved them - and they knew that.  More than that, both their mother and I respected them. While we didn’t have any formal parenting training (Is there such a thing?) we tried our best not to do what our parents did with us that we thought could have been done better.  And when asking for their respect, we believed they deserved ours as well. 

I remember one family that we spent considerable time with when our children were young and especially with the father, that wasn’t the case.  You know what I mean, it’s when the child comes up to a group of adults and has something to ask or tell you.  One way to handle it is to say ‘I don’t have time, just go back and play’.  The other, and one we chose, was to ask the child to wait until we were finished with that part of the conversation and then asked them what they had to tell us.  We listened and responded.  If it was a question (“How do birds fly?”) we’d do our best to answer it.  If we didn’t know, we’d say “Gee, that’s a good question.  We don’t know the answer but we’ll find out.” And then we did research it and find out and give them the answer.  I strongly believe that the mutual respect concept has gone a long way into my sons becoming the adults they’ve become.  By the way, those days hanging out in the backyard, either ours or someone else’s, offered some of the great spontaneous parenting situations available.  When you get more than just your children involved, the conversations go off into really different zones.  Also the problems, “Brian took my turn on the slide” have more dynamics to them too and you get to be the referee as well as the parent.  I remember that I never felt like I wanted to be anywhere else but there. 

Unfortunately, not all parents feel that way.  They have a hard time spending time with their children, whether it be back to school night (“I had to work late”) or a Little League game (“I had to leave early on a business trip”) or a school play (“I can’t get home but your mother is going to call me on my mobile phone and I’ll listen to the chorus sing the song”) and, boy, what they’re missing. 

I made a point of being many of my kids’ special events and whenever possible and videotaped many of them.  Now, this many years later, they tell me how much they appreciate that I did that because even though we don’t look at these videos too often we have a permanent record of those times that can never, ever be duplicated.

My mother (and her mother) used the phrase “Out of the mouths of babes” when one of the kids would spit out a gem of a phrase with all the innocence available to mankind.  I think it’s still the same but I wonder how much of the innocence is still there.  It’s one of the challenges of childhood and parenthood today; that is to help your child be a child and not succumb to growing up too fast based on all the stimuli that’s available to them on TV, the Internet and, well, almost everywhere.  Maybe the key is not the amount of quality time you spend with your kids but the amount of time, period (i.e. Quantity Time).  But it can’t be easy today.  There are so many demands on the time of young parents today that it must be difficult to find time to spend with your kids.

I think it’s more important than ever if we want the future generations to be better than we are.  If it’s not you (or their likely to be working mother) that’s around to answer their spontaneous questions, who then - a nanny?  And don’t you want to be there?  Don’t you want to watch your child grow up? 

You know that saying that it happens so fast, the next thing you know they’re teenagers?  Well, it’s true they're only young once.  So while you’re reading this and thinking of all the reasons why you can’t spend more time with your kids stop.  Just stop and think about why you had children in the first place.  Just stop and think of what all the money you’re making can buy you.  Is it things worth having or things worth being?  Things worth being come from inside you.  They are transferred by example to your children.  Do you want them to be like you?  Or would you rather have them be what you say and not what you do?  Try spending more time with your children and then tell me that the things you experienced from the ‘Spontaneous Parenting’ time aren’t worth all the material things in the world. 

Try it before it’s too late and the questions they’re asking you (or worse, not asking you) are more complicated or serious or fearful.  You have one chance to make a difference in your child’s life and I for one am glad that I tried my best to be a positive influence for mine. More than that, I wanted to be around them and share as many of their experiences as I could.

I’ll never forget that I was feeling guilty one day when they were in high school (because I didn’t live with them) and I said, gee, I’m sorry that I’m not around as much as some other parents probably are.  And my sons said, “Dad, we see you more than most of our friends see their parents who live with them.”  It was one of the most memorable conversations because it reinforced that if you want to spend time with your kids you can do it, whether you live with them or not. It showed me that my kids knew that I wanted to spend time with them and didn’t feel like I had to. 

Maybe I gained an advantage when I moved out, even though then I only saw it as a disadvantage.  Maybe my advantage was appreciating what being a parent was and how fleeting the time you get to spend with your sons or daughters is and how fast time really does fly and how quickly they grow up.  But for you that live in a ‘family unit’, don’t let the seeming availability of opportunity fool you.  If you are not at their school play, it will hurt them, no matter what the excuse.  But more than that, you will regret it.  Believe me.  You will. dAnd so before you regret something that you didn’t do, just make plans to do it.  Whether you take a video tape of the event or simply sit in the audience or stands or wherever and enjoy it and smile (because you will) at the joy of just being there and watching your child do something that they’re really proud of.  You’re proud of them and they are glad you’re there.

Next time you’re at an event, look at the children whose fathers are not there, for some good reason of course, and look at their faces.  It’s not the same.  Even if you are separated or divorced or whatever, do not miss the spontaneous parenting opportunities placed in front of you.  Because just as they’re there, they’re gone. In a flash.  And you can never go back and recapture those lost moments.  Not in photographs, not in a video and not on a mobile phone.  So when you kid says, “Hey Dad”, please make sure you don’t ignore it but rather savor it because even though children will be saying “Hey Dad” for many, many years, there’s nothing like the “Hey Dad” of a young son or daughter.  Nothing.



Kevin, Steve, Brian - August 2015

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