When your kids are in preschool, they’ll come home with tons of projects: coasters, ornaments, t-shirts, etc. Some of these are binned pretty quickly. Others really get you in the gut. Check out these gems:
“Sometimes you get discouraged
Because I am so small,
And always leave my fingerprints
On furniture and walls.
But everyday I am growing,
-I’ll be grown up someday,
And all these tiny handprints
Will simply fade away.”
clean the fingerprints
I leave upon the wall.
I seem to make a mess of things
Because I am so small.
The years will pass so quickly
I’ll soon be grown like you
And all my little fingerprints
Will surely fade from view.”
What the hell kind of emotional warfare is this? There’s a whole website dedicated to this brand of guilt trip! And those of you who’ve read How to Win Friends & Influence People know the first chapter goes nuclear on dads. Check out this gut shot from Chapter 1, attributed to a W. Livingston Larned:
Listen Son, I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little hand crumpled under your cheek
and blonde curls sticky over your wet forehead. I have broken into your room alone. Just a few
minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me.
Guilty, I came to your bedside.
There are things which I am thinking, son; I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you
were dressing for school because you gave your face a mere dab with the towel. I took you to
task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the
At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You
put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. As you started off to
play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” I
frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”.
Then it began all over again late this afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down
on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your socks. I humiliated you before your
friends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Socks were expensive, and if you had to buy
them you would be more careful! Imagine that son, from a father.
Do you remember later, when I was reading in the library, how you came timidly, with
sort of a hurt look in your eyes? I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption; you
hesitated at the door. “What is it that you want?” I snapped.
You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, threw your arms around my
neck and kissed me, your small arms tightened with affection that God had set blooming in your
heart, which even neglect could not wither. Then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.
Well, Son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible
sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, or
reprimanding; this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you: it
was that I expected too much of you. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.
There is so much that was good, fine and true in your character. The little heart of yours
was as big as the dawn itself over the hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush
in and kiss me good night. Nothing else mattered tonight. Son, I have come to your beside in the
darkness, I have knelt there, ashamed!
It is a feeble atonement; I know that you would not understand these things which I have
told you in the waking hours. Tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, suffer
when you suffer and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I
will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy–a little boy.”
I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, Son, crumpled and
weary in your bed. I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms,
your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much!
This kind of stuff is enough to make a dad quit his job, stay home and cater to his kids for the rest of his life – or at least a summer! (Wait…) And with all this emotional manipulation, there is the legitimate fear that you’ll turn into one of these hippy-everybody-gets-a-trophy-and-a-hug-cures-everything kind of dad. How do you combat this? How do you maintain the balance between being a laissez faire pushover and a firm father figure? How do you know when your patience really is wearing thin? And am I supposed to never have a bad day again? Or my own space to do what I want? Seriously. I need help with this. These are not rhetorical questions. They come up quite often. Like last weekend, and the weekend before that.
For the last few years, I’ve been learning how to surf. It always seemed odd to me that despite being born and raised in Hawaii, I never learned how to surf or swim as a child. I learned how to swim about 15 years ago, holding off on the surfing until recently. But when I decide I want to get good at something, I become obsessed. It’s all I can think of and everything else revolves around this new activity. I have good days and I have bad days, and I’m getting to where I actually have fun doing it. It brings me joy. But the last few weeks, Logan wanted to ditch the boogie board and try surfing. My first thought was, “Nope – I’m not good enough to teach it yet.” Hmm. I had to call bullshit on myself. I said “No” because surfing was daddy time and I didn’t want some kid honing in on my Zen. Ugh – worst…father…ever! But because I said I’d bring him out, I did. And guess what! It was some of the best fun I’ve had in the water. I brought him out again the following weekend, and he charged even more – paddling out by himself and even attempting to catch a wave or two. Now what do I do? I need my time to get my surf on, not to mention enough solitude to act like a completely uncoordinated kook without embarrassing myself in front of an audience. But my kid loves it and I love watching him do it.
Oddly enough, I found an answer in a new book by a Japanese tidying consultant. Marie Kondo’s mantra is to keep things that spark joy and discard everything else. I realized that I could apply that to my allocation of time and mental energy. Surfing by myself brings me joy. Surfing with my child also brings me joy. There is time for both. Joy is also informing how much I work or when to discipline the boys. Often what I get agitated about aren’t really big deals. They boil down to distraction and annoyance. Safety issues not withstanding, I find myself getting angry because of excessive noise and general distraction. Unnecessary messiness falls under the category of distraction. So I try to check myself. Are the boys engaging in activity that brings them immense joy? Is their joy worth my slight distraction and annoyance? If so, I try to check my own selfishness and bite my tongue. If they’re laughing and playing and making a mess, we just remind them that clean up is part of the fun. If they’re being loud, obnoxious, and messy because they’re being lazy or inconsiderate and not engaging in something joyful? Then we’ll step in to end the carousing.
But it’s a hard thing for today’s parent. It’s hard to know when you’re being a moody stick in the mud or when you need to be a disciplinarian. And what about feeling guilty about wanting (or needing) your own time and space? For now, my guidance will be real joy, for myself or for my children. We’ll see how far that takes us.
Daddy ninjas, how do you balance being chill vs. being firm?
For new dads, what precious things are you afraid of having to give up when the kid arrives?