Monday, March 26, 2012

The art of dadness

It's tricky being a father in the 21st century.

Guys in my generation are influenced by two very different styles of parenting: On one hand, most of us had fathers who were of the old school. They were generally good dads, but they left the majority of parenting duties to their wives. Their involvement in the child-rearing process was fairly limited to serving as procreators, disciplinarians and financial backers. And in some cases, not much else.

On the other hand, we ourselves are raising kids at a time when fathers are (happily) expected to be far more hands-on. Unlike many of our dads, we were right there to witness the birth of our children, which as Sting once very aptly said makes the whole thing "much more bloody and profound." In that alone we are sometimes more closely connected to our kids from the very start than our fathers might have been.

We are also rightly expected to take part in all day-to-day aspects of parenting. This is eminently fair but also sometimes a little challenging. The only role models we had for this growing up were our moms, since our dads were so often out working or doing other manly, dad-like things and were therefore absent from the minutiae of having kids. Consequently, a lot of us are simply carbon copies of our mothers when it comes to parenting style.

Women, for the most part, are pretty understanding of this ongoing conflict in our lives and as a gender have been remarkably tolerant of our fatherly shortcomings. One side effect of this is that the bar is set fairly low for modern dads, and anything we do right is met with cheers and applause.

Seriously, it's not that difficult to be considered a good dad nowadays. You show up to little league games, change a few diapers, stay home and watch the kids when your wife goes out and, presto, you're suddenly a candidate for Father of the Year. I've always thought the standards should be a lot higher than that. If we're going to be what we're supposed to be as dads, I think someone needs to push us a little harder.

And speaking of watching the kids, you know what has always bothered me? When someone sees me alone with my children and asks whether I'm "babysitting" them. As if they don't actually belong to me and I'm just pretending to be a parent for a bit while my wife is out shopping. The two irksome implications of that question are:

(1) The responsibility for watching the kids really falls on my wife and I'm graciously offering to do her job for her, and

(2) I'm incompetent and can't be trusted to do this for too long.

In all fairness, I don't think people who ask whether I'm "babysitting" my kids mean anything negative by it, and usually they're of an older generation that simply had a different approach to parenting. But it still bothers me.

I am of the opinion that fathers are invaluable. That's not at all to say that single mothers can't raise quality kids. They do it all the time, and they amaze me. (I know some great single fathers, too.) I'm just saying that a dad brings something to the equation that's hard for a parent of the other gender to match, just as a father on his own by definition can't give his kids everything a mother can.

I am very blessed to serve on the board of directors of The City Mission, an incredible organization in Cleveland that helps people whose lives are in crisis. Next month, the Mission will conduct a day-long event called "Where's Papa? A Symposium on Father Absence." The speaker, Dr. David Stoop, has written more than 20 books that deal with parenting, and specifically with the role of fathers in raising children.

I presume that Dr. Stoop is going to point to the dozens of studies showing the negative social, developmental and financial impact of absent fathers on our society. But beyond that, I just hope that in some small way the event lends credence to the idea that dads are worth something. Popular culture has done a lot to denigrate the role of fathers, and we're often viewed as optional accessories. As I said, this in no way detracts from the efforts of single parents, but I like to think that what we do as fathers is vastly important, and always will be.

I had a great dad. He was goofy, and he had his quirks and faults, but not for a second not for a single second did I ever doubt that he loved me and cared for my well-being. The effect of that simple fact on my life has been immeasurably positive, and I want my kids to enjoy the same thing.

Because let's face it: We can't rely on moms to tell stupid jokes, make bad puns, wear hideously mismatched outfits in public, and fall asleep on the couch with their hands in their pants. These are time-honored dad traditions, and by God, I will do everything in my power to uphold them.

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