I’m a father to two boys, 13 and 9. It was the youngest that asked me the question which changed the way I thought of myself as a parent. He was about 5 years old at the time, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
“Daddy, have you ever smiled?”
I was taken off guard at first by the question. What could he mean? Of course I smile. Anybody who knows me may wonder if I’ve ever been serious.
The more I thought about it though, the kid was right. His perception of me as not only a father, but a person, painted a terrible reality.
Don’t misunderstand, on the surface, I’m a good dad. I don’t beat my children; I hug them, kiss them, and tell them I love them. All the things we think are the important parts of being a good parent. Obviously, it wasn’t enough.
I had to take a look at myself from my kid’s perspective. I saw 5 negatives I knew I had to change to positives.
1. I treated them different than everybody else.
I’m typically a light-hearted, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. I’m not borderline non-confrontational, I established roots there and now own real estate. I want everybody to get along and often find myself quite the peacemaker. I don’t go out of my way to make anyone feel bad. I don’t like prank videos because I get embarrassed for the people who are being embarrassed. I care about people’s feelings.
All that being said, there are only two people I’ve ever yelled at in my life (not counting the little tiny football players on my TV who ruin my life every Fall), and that would be my two kids.
They don’t see the me everyone else sees. They see a man, twice their size storming at them full speed screaming like a mad man, “HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU TO GO TO BED?!?” “I TOLD YOU TO STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER! GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
To you, I’m a teddy bear. To them, I’m an overgrown monster who comes out of the shadows of the hallway every now and then to yell at them.
Treat them different than everybody else.
I’m going to admit, this is a work in progress. However, I’ve stopped the yelling, for the most part. But it’s more than just the yelling. What privileges do they get that nobody else does? What can I do with them or for them that can be just “our thing?” Do they get priority over my friends, my job, my hobbies? This is where we can make them feel like they ARE preferred over everybody else.
2. They have names.
I was really bad at this. I’m pretty sure if it continued, my kids would 84.7% believe that their names were “REALLY!?!?” and “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?”
No, my kids’ names are Brady and Cameron, and I let the world know.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook, or follow me on twitter(@Bo_Wright, shameless plug), then you probably have grown tired about hearing how awesome my kids are at everything they do. Why do I do that? Because it builds them up. I don’t just want them to know I’m proud of them. I don’t just want them to know that what they’re doing is awesome. I want them to know that I brag about them. This is a tough world; you won’t have a lot of people championing you. They need to know dad’s their biggest fan.
3. Do I make them feel inconvenient?
I’m known for having quite the sigh. You see, truth is, I have some genetic nasal blockage that sorta makes me your typical Oklahoma, midwestern, mouth breather. If I was ever captured, bound and gagged, I’m not sure I could make it, because my nose can’t do it alone. Consequently, I sigh a lot. It’s not really out of dissatisfaction or boredom or anything to do with anything really. It’s just what I do. My wife even still has trouble distinguishing my actual sighs from my “Oh, he just can’t breathe” sighs.
This causes a problem though. The international sign of being inconvenienced by something is the sigh. My kids were starting to feel as though I was constantly being inconvenienced by them.
“Daddy, can I watch TV?”
“Daddy, can my friend come over?”
“Daddy, can we get a puppy?”
Sigh. Face palm. Head hits desk.
Ok, so the last one may have been more than just needing a breath.
I’m really terrible at bedtime. In fact, this is where much of my failure as a parent takes place. I’ve had a long day, they’ve had a long day, and how many of you know, we all get tired in different ways? When my kids get tired, they get almost obnoxiously energized. When I get tired, I get entirely, obnoxiously grumpy, especially towards them. I’m not even dad anymore. I turn into a caricature of Jeff Goldblum. Voice rises, I start walking faster, my hand gestures are exaggerated. It can be comical in an “I don’t think I want to watch this anymore” sort of way. And I sigh, a lot.
I had to stop treating the last 10 minutes of their day like it was a category 5 hostage situation. I stopped negotiating, stopped acting as if a bomb could go off at any minute. I took a deep breath, and relaxed. I had to make their last image of me at night be the loving, caring father, not Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park.
4. Sending them off to play
This is a biggie. I blame my childhood. I don’t blame my parents, I blame my childhood.
Things were different in the 80’s. There weren’t 900 channels, there was outside. If you wanted to do anything, it was outside. The answer to life’s troubles was, “Go play.”
As a result, I turned into a “Go play” dad.
You’re bored? Go play.
You’re hungry? Go play.
You’re in front of the TV? Go play.
But in this day and age, what is the kid hearing? Don’t get me wrong, there is still a time and place where kids need to go be kids, without us. But if you say it enough, the kid may hear, “Just go somewhere else, away from me.” Is that the message I want my kid learning?
Do you have kids? Let’s do an experiment this week. If you struggle with the “Go play” syndrome, go ask your kids this question, “Do you want to play a game?” or “Do you want me to throw the football with you?”
Then, watch their face. Enjoy their reaction.
When I do this, their face lights up like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s usually coupled with an excited, but stuttering “Y-Y-EEEEEE-SSS!”, then, sprinting to find their shoes, which are undoubtedly on the floor in two separate rooms.
I’d played games and played outside with my kids before, but to be honest, it was about 88% on their initiation. I’m 41 years old; they have WAY more energy than I do. I’ll forever be the one to tire out first, but if I initiated the play time, it makes it easier to tap out when I’m pooped.
Actions speak louder than words, is not just a cute saying. It’s actually true, especially to kids. Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. I can tell them all day long that I love them and how important they are to me, but until I can put down the remote and do some things with them that they want to do, do they really get it?
I’d like to thank my youngest son, Cameron, for this revelation.
He asked it in the most innocent, sincere way possible. He was about 5 years old. I was tucking him in at night, in the same manner I did every night. I had no idea all he wanted in those frantic, “BRUSH YOUR TEETH, NOW!” “I ALREADY DID!” moments, was his dad to smile.
Everything I was doing wrong as a father and everything I had to do to fix it, was wrapped up in one simple question, “Daddy, do you ever smile?”
If I just simply start with a smile, I can completely change the world my kids perceive.
And perception, as they say, is reality.