Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day Thoughts

Like many of my fellow fathers out there, I get a chance to get my ego stroked today.  My kids, all three of them will give me a hug, a card, maybe a nice cigar or so and for a short period of time they'll overlook all the mistakes I made in raising them.  So, today, when I'm the "World's Best Dad",  I will get to revel in the well meaning accolades that will also be repeated in home after home across our country. 

It's interesting that typically the day is one-sided.  Sure, we all like to have our good points called out.  We like the stories of being the super-hero when the kids were young and saved them from the monster under the bed.  We like the stories of teaching our kids how to swim or throw a curve ball or fix a broken something. We like being told how good we are.  It's logical. Most people would rather hear about the good stuff than the bad.  But, while all the attention is on us for a day, then perhaps we should touch on the not-so-good stuff.  I'm not talking about the mistakes we make with our kids in terms of missing a ball-game or a play.  Or, being too busy to have a tea-party with your young daughter and 5 or 6 of her favorite dolls and stuffed animals.  Those are normal, common and all of us have committed those errors from time to time.  I'm talking about a more fundamental mistake that is made between a Dad and his kids.  That mistake is not taking your role as a teacher seriously enough, or perhaps even more egregious, taking it serious enough to teach the wrong things.

Being a father is a serious responsibility.  To paraphrase a popular HBO Show "The way is dark and full of terror".  It's a scary business.  I think anyone who has walked in our shoes can attest to the abject terror when your kid is hurt, sick,  or missing (even for a few minutes).  The disappointment we feel when our kid does something stupid or wrong or mean.  The helplessness we feel when our kids are unhappy and we can't fix it.  Those feelings are the counter-balance to the joy, pride and hope we feel most of the time.  There seems to be a yin and yang to this experience of being the patriarch of our little family units.  Most of us go through our time as a parent with an equal mixture of worry, hope, sadness and joy.  I experience all of these feelings every day, and I'm a veteran Dad of some 28 years.   It doesn't go away, and, as time progresses, some of us (at least I do on a regular basis) reflect about how we could have been a better Dad.  I am compelled toward this thinking because there is not a day that goes by that I don't think about my own Dad and the lessons he taught me, and the nuanced approach he had on making sure I would be up to the task of fatherhood when my time came.  I wonder often, if he would think I am doing OK or if I've made a hash of things.   I believe I've done fairly well, my kids seem to be generally in good shape and overall happy.  But, I don't know how much of that is really me or their mother, or simply circumstance at large.   Why I do know, is that I've made it a point over the last couple of decades with my kids to try and teach them not to hate.  This fundamental lesson was passed down to me by my Dad.   He told me over and over that "If you allow yourself to hate, then you're only harming yourself and the people around you"; "Don't give into it, it will make you sick";  "Hatred leads to violence and feeds on itself" and "You can't hate things into love".   

Hatred is not genetic. We're certainly encoded to develop feelings and thoughts and points of view, but no one is born hating something or some one.   This is learned behavior.  Where is it learned?  Oh, many places I suppose, but the primary place of learning for all of us is not in the schools, not in the churches, not in the streets, not in the libraries. It's at home.  We learn more from our parents in terms of how we develop our character and how we look at the world than probably anywhere else.  Yes, we can get our minds corrupted later, we can by virtue of experience change our perspective on many things, but our fundamental education on how we treat other people is taught at home, and here's the kicker guys.  It's usually taught by Dads.  We are (especially with respect to sons) the "Organic Wikipedia".  They come to us for answers, look to us for example, mirror our behavior, and generally, until they are about 11 or 12 want to be like us.  By the time they are 13 or 14, they've usually decided they're adopted because there is no way they could have biological parents as stupid as us.  By the way, that period of disclaiming heritage passes about the time they have their first mortgage payment and Voila! we become smart again.    But, I digress.  Back to the education.  How many of you have been a little shocked or ashamed when something you may have said gets repeated back to you by your 3 or 4 year old?  Maybe you were swearing at the guy that cut you off, or frustrated because the lawn-mower wouldn't start and you launched into a stream of profanity that would make a sailor blush. Then, you're at the grocery store and for the eleventh time you've said no to the request for the candy bar only to hear your beautiful son or daughter repeat those same profanities while you're standing in the check-out line. Of course all of that is over heard by imperious looking people who would never raise kids like that.  It makes you want to put a bag on your head and slink out the door never to shop their again. We've all done this.  We've seen it over and over again with our friends and neighbors and for the most part, it's a little funny even though we know, it's a living reminder of when we stepped into it.

Sometimes though, and perhaps even subconsciously, we teach things that are more dark. We teach bigotry, prejudice, hatred.  Some do it on purpose, with overt derision toward people who don't look like them, act like them, worship like them, love like them, or think like them.  These are the lessons that leave permanent scars on humanity, because they are easily learned, often never re-directed, and by the time our pupils become adults are so thoroughly entrenched that it's almost impossible for the lessons to be unlearned.

The shooting in Charleston that was committed by an admitted racist, who is quite obviously insane, strikes me as a graduate of the school of hatred.  Where did he learn this?  Was it his Father and Mother? Grandparents? Was it his environment? Was it his friends? His school? The Internet?   Who knows, but he learned this somewhere.  And at 21 years old, he acted on his hatred and now nine people are dead.  Where was the Dad in this?  What lessons did he teach?  How active was he during  the formative years of this young murderer?  Did he teach the son right from wrong? Did he teach him love or hate?  Where exactly was he?  Now, I do not want to paint this Dad with a brush that suggest the child's actions are his fault.  There is no evidence to suggest that.  This could all have been an act of a horrible mental illness gaining control over his son.  But, I would think that a Dad, if he is in tune with what is going on in his kids life (even if the kid doesn't live with him), would pick up on these signals, and attempt to do something about it.   Perhaps the Dad had no clue.   But, unless this act of violence came from a recent conversion of this killer towards a race based murder, the hatred was there for awhile and had to be learned.

We fathers are part of a wonderful fraternity.  We get massive benefits from saying "That's my kid, look how great he/she is at (fill in the blank).  It fills us with pride, and gives us a sense that our life had a purpose.   It's important that we recognize our role in this fraternity as one that requires active participation, not passive observation.  The Dad who overtly encourages their kids to hate, to be bigoted, to find every difference to them that someone has as a fault is dooming their kids, and perhaps their kid's kids to a series of experiences that only ends in pain.  We have to take our role as fathers seriously. We have to know that the lessons we teach, whether by example or by word, are the most lasting.  We have a chance to make the place better for our kids and grand kids and it starts with what we teach.  So, let's think about this and talk about it and become better teachers.

Now, back to the ego-pumping praising of how great we are today!  We're #1! We're #1, etc. etc...

Happy Father's Day


Dennis

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