Everything changes for a man the moment he holds his first-born child. Not only does the state mandate an 18-year financial commitment, but for most fathers there is an unspoken commitment to build a better man than the one he sees in the mirror.
Over the years, I’ve shared my take on fatherhood with you in four columns of six tips each. I’ve called each of these a six pack. At the request of a reader, here’s a case of those tips. I can’t say I know more about fatherhood than the next guy, so take what you value and ignore the rest. As far as my qualifications, all I can say is all three of my children have jobs, use designated drivers and occasionally take their parental units to a special event.
What follows is an abbreviated version of those six packs.
Six Pack 1
1) Build a strong nest: Eat, play, work and vacation together. Make family the priority over career. Make amends with family members who've wronged you to stabilize the extended family. Don't let any beer swilling, macho buddy or sweet-talking home-wrecker misguide you. Be a man.
2) Be there: Quality time is no substitute for quantity of time. That means less time at work, less time at the bar and less time with the buds. Be there to observe, ask and answer questions, rough-house, advise, hug, yes--hug, and, above all, to let them know they are important to you.
3) Get physical: Let your children know, by example, you expect them to be active. How good you are is irrelevant. Just do it. Run with them. Lift with them. If all you can do is walk, walk with them. Exercise is critical to healthy living and it fights depression. Sport teaches discipline, teamwork, leadership and how to win and lose.
4) Foster independence: Give children opportunities to make decisions. Advise them of the pros and cons, but if they make a bad decision, let them suffer the consequences. For example, son dings car, son pays. When they leave the nest, you won't be there to protect them. But, while they live with you, you can help them develop good decision making skills and support them while they make a bad decision.
5) Help them follow their bliss: Many young people choose a job or career for superficial reasons. Encourage your children to dream. Uncommon satisfaction comes from the uncommon effort it takes to follow a career path that engages both mind and heart.
6) Encourage risk-taking: A father's love is unlike a mother's. A mother loves a child unconditionally. A father gives and withholds affection depending on the child’s actions. This is ingrained in us as a species. Consequently, a child sometimes refuses to take risks for fear of failing and disappointing Dad. Fathers need to encourage risk-taking and celebrate failures as necessary steps to success.
Six Pack 2
1) Be money smart: Financial strain is the number one reason families split, but not enough attention is given to managing debt and creating a budget. If you don’t know how to budget, find someone who does and then teach your children.
2) Read: One of the best gifts you can give your children is a love of reading. Read auto manuals, video game handbooks, hip-hop magazines. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to show your children that reading, combined with curiosity, is an indispensable tool for a successful life.
3) Hug a tree: The joys of silence and solitude are found in the woods. Children are bombarded with noise, talk and music. They are seldom alone in the modern world where everything is organized. The woods will let them hear their inner voice and help them become comfortable with being alone. Take them both during the day and at night. They will learn to quiet their fear of both the unknown and the dark.
4) Establish traditions: In a changing world, children value traditions more than we think. Our traditions include Christmas Eve candlelight service, a trip to Oak Openings on Christmas morning and family dinner at the restaurant of their choice for their birthday. Start your traditions early. They will create memories all of you will cherish.
5) Honor your father: Treat your father like you want to be treated by your children, not by how he treats you. Your children are watching and learning. Most men naturally disagree with and distance themselves from their fathers on their way to becoming their own men. For you, that’s all in the past now. Let it go. It’s more important for you to be a father to your children than a son to your father. Forgive the old man and even if you don’t like him, your children are learning how to treat you by how they see you treat him.
6) Do housework: Few families can make it today without two incomes. That means if she’s working out of the home, you need to work in it. There is no such thing as women’s work. It’s all work. Do your share and show your kids your wife is worthy of the respect of an equal. Don’t preach, lead by example.
Six Pack 3
1) Family first: Family can find you when you’re lost; support you when you’re falling and kick you in the ass when you need it. Do not alienate your strongest allies with rashness, stubbornness or vindictiveness. Cultivate these binds. Your children will benefit. They may even visit you when they leave the nest.
2) Mean what you say: Words have meaning. They hurt. They motivate. They will be remembered. What you say in anger, or in jest, or just to fill the silence may have more meaning than what you intend. You will not know the importance of words you have long-since forgotten until your child parrots them back in adulthood.
3) Keep cool under pressure: You will face difficult times when the answer you seek is not even within your peripheral vision. But, your child will be watching you and he or she will learn how to handle stress by how you handle it. Take a deep breath and make your child proud of you and how you handle adversity.
4) Do it with enthusiasm: Bruce Springsteen sings in Badlands, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” Be enthusiastic about your work, your hobbies, your relationships. That dark hole of despair can suck in everyone who comes near it. Don’t bring your children down. Success comes more to those with a positive outlook than to those afraid of obstacles.
5) Win with grace, lose with grace: The game is the thing. If you win, don’t rub it in, don’t beat your chest. If you lose, don’t make excuses, don’t throw a tantrum. If your children learn this lesson in play, in work and in relationships, they will always have teams to play on, employers who will hire them and friends who will support them.
6) Pursue excellence, settle for good enough: It is an innate human trait to pursue excellence, but there are deadlines and commitments that will sap you of your time. Pursue excellence in the things that matter, settle for good enough in the things that matter less and invest the time you save into your kids.
Six Pack 4 (For adult children)
1) Just don’t do it: As much as you’re tempted, don’t give unsolicited advice. If you’ve done your job, they’ve heard half of what you’ve told them and heeded a quarter of that. Hopefully, you’ve allowed them enough space while they were growing up to make mistakes and learn from them. Now, it’s their life. Back off. Unless they ask…
2) Give them a shoulder to lean on: They’ll screw themselves and be screwed. They’ll lose jobs on their own or through no fault of their own. They’ll be loved and they’ll be left. Be there as you would for a friend. Tell them you know they are hurting and you are there when they want to lean on you.
3) Beware of bail outs: You are not the government. Your days as the family bank are over. Everyone looks for the easy way out. This is human nature. But, by giving or loaning them money when they are in trouble, you deter them from taking the necessary steps to get their finances straight, like taking a job beneath their dignity, or a second job, or selling some possessions, or going without. Choose wisely your bail outs.
4) Maintain traditions: You don’t have to hide Easter eggs anymore, but there is no better way to reconnect with your adult children than to relive the traditions you shared when they were young.
5) Don’t judge the S.O.: Maybe your son’s significant other doesn’t have a tattoo, a nose ring or a stud in her tongue. Don’t hold that against her, or him. Be tolerant and supportive. Remember how your physical appearance helped build the barrier between you and your in-laws?
6) Expand your horizons: Show an interest in their music, hobbies and passions. If they invite you, go, if it’s safe and you can face yourself in the mirror. Adult children provide an opportunity to expand your horizons while walking on their path. But remember you are out with adults, not kids. Treat them like you would your friends.
Research has shown that fathers can have a dramatic impact on society by teaching their children responsibility, discipline, independence, and a quiver of other skills and attitudes that can target success. Unfortunately, fatherhood does not require a license, a degree, or any training. And, there’s no penalty for doing it poorly. Do the right thing.