This Father’s Day, I’ll begin with a confession: My most important job is also the one that I’m least confident I’m doing correctly.
It demands everything, guarantees nothing, frustrates completely, and challenges endlessly. The hours are around the clock, the stress is unbelievable, and the pay is lousy. It’s heavy on responsibility, light on training, fraught with worry, and overwhelming in its scope. There is no making friends, generating excuses, passing the buck or sitting on the sidelines. The praise is spotty, the criticism unavoidable, and the consequences of failing everlasting.
I’m convinced that, in the course of parenting, I make mistakes every day. If you need confirmation, ask my three kids (5, 8, 10). They’ll back me up. Although, owing to their chronic bouts with spotty hearing and selective memory, don't be surprised if they fail to mention their own misbehavior.
Oops. Can we still use the “m-word?” A generation ago, before the “wimpification” of so many of America’s parents, kids were told to be “a good boy” or “a good girl” and informed that there would be consequences if those expectations were not met.
I’ll know I’ve been successful at this gig if my kids turn out to be grateful, thoughtful and helpful. Those are lasting values, and I have to instill them.
Today, we’re far too enlightened for that brand of barbarism, and so we find it easier to excuse the mistakes and misdeeds of anyone under five feet tall by chalking it up to free expression and early leadership skills. Kids will be kids.
In those bygone days, a department store Santa Claus would still ask a child: “Have you been good this year?” Now a less judgmental Santa, who is after all on the payroll of the department stores, cuts to the chase and asks: “What do you want for Christmas?” No need to earn it. No strings attached.
As far as I can tell, my major shortcoming seems to be my inability to achieve the Goldilocks formula for parenting — not too much of this or that but just right. I’m too strict, I’m too lenient. I’m always in my kids’ face, or I’m nowhere to be found. I’m afraid that I’m not doing enough to provide my kids with a good living, but I’m also afraid of working so hard that I’m not spending enough time with them.
My college roommate’s father was a wise man. He once shared with us that the meaning of life was finding balance.
So true. But does anyone ever achieve the correct balance to parent? Honestly, I have to wonder, does any ever get this job right? Or are we just supposed to accept the mistakes as part of the process and move to the next level of the game?
Meanwhile, I wonder how my kids’ lives will be impacted by the fact that their dad is a “C-student" at parenting.
I have come to have tremendous respect for the parents of polite, responsible and well-adjusted grown children. In the last several months, I’ve sought out about a dozen or so fathers with kids in college — those near the end of the journey, and I’ve asked them a simple question: How does someone know when he has succeeded at fatherhood? The answers ran the gamut.
One father told me that it’s when your kids become adults and thank you for being there. Another said it comes at that comment when you look at your offspring and recognize that they turned out to be good people. Another said one measure of success is that your kids want to spend time with you.
For me, I’ll know I’ve been successful at this gig if my kids turn out to be grateful, thoughtful and helpful. Those are lasting values, and I have to instill them. You can easily imagine what kind of people you want your children to become or what you want them to achieve, but you also have to realize that they won’t get there organically. You have to lead the way. And that isn’t easy.
Whether my children grow up to be prosperous, healthy, or happy will have a lot to do with the decisions they make on their own. I can impact some of those decisions, but most of them will be out of my hands. There is only so much a parent can do, once free will comes into play.
Lately, I can’t shake the feeling that what my kids most need to hear is not what I’ll do for them but what I won’t do for them. Other parents will bend over backward to make excuses for their kids’ misbehavior and shortcomings, but I refuse to do that. It only hurts the kids in the long run. We’re here to raise these little people into not just bigger people but also better people, not to cover up their mistakes and smooth over their flaws.
Nor should we cater to their every whim. The more we do for our children, the less we teach them to do for themselves. I’m constantly reminding my kids that — as much as I do for them — I’m not their chef, butler, chauffeur.
Now and then, my kids will complain that they’re bored. So what? A little boredom is good since it fosters imagination and creativity. Besides, it’s not my job to entertain them. As I tell them, I‘m also not their cruise director.
I’m their dad. And — given that this is one job that, if done correctly, requires plenty of time, patience, and effort and seems to take a lifetime to perfect — that should be more than enough.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for the Daily Beast. He also writes a nationally syndicated column for the Washington Post Writers Group. He is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam 1994).