The Part of Us That Wants to Avoid Our Kids
For some of us dads, the responsibility of getting our kids to undress, take a bath, jump into their PJs, brush their teeth, and get into bed is ours, and ours alone. One writer describes the situation this way,
As far as they’re concerned, asking them to perform any of these tasks–rather than, say, letting them watch television or play video games–flies in the face of natural justice. They puff themselves up with moral indignation, outraged that I should have so little regard for their feelings, even though this has been the ritual every day of their lives.
The phrase ‘herding kittens’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s like trying to herd a group of tiny lawyers, all convinced that ‘herding’ is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. (Toby Young, The Telegraph, Why men don’t want it all)
I remember when my kids were in diapers. I looked for opportunities to trade shifts with other firefighters, because a night at the fire station provided much better rest than a night at home waking up to feed or change the kids. And during the day a 24 hour shift trade offered sanctuary from changing poopy diapers, and heating up formula, and playing the same game for the 100th time, and answering the question “Why?” for the 1,000th time. My plan was to take the payback for those trades, after my kids were out of diapers, and sleeping through the night, and after I found them more interesting. Honestly, my career was a safe and socially acceptable way to avoid my responsibility as a dad.
My job, specifically shift trades, that was my solution back in the diaper days. And apparently I’m not alone. The former director of policy and planning at the U.S. State Department wrote, “Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family.” (Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All) Yes, my job, it was a culturally acceptable place to escape.
But it wasn’t just my job, at the time, there were plenty of other activities I preferred over parenting. Television and video games weren’t just for the kids, Like most dads, I wanted time for those things for myself as well. And like most dads, I also wanted to play golf, and read, and shoot hoops, and fish. I wanted to do these things and I wanted to do them unencumbered by children.
I’m OK, You’re Super Not OK!
Then I heard something that radically changed my outlook. I was sitting in a class on juvenile firesetters when the instructor, who was a psychologist, said these words: “Ever hear of that book, I’m OK, You’re OK? Well a juvenile firesetter’s outlook can be described as, ‘I’m OK, you’re super not OK!'” And then he went on to explain one of the most common causes of this nasty outlook, was a dad who was mostly absent from the family, absent either physically, or emotionally.
Hearing that changed my perspective on fatherhood forever.
Kids Without Dads
There’s a strong trend in the U.S. of fathers disappearing from families. There’s a neighborhood in Southeast Washington D.C. where only 1 in 10 children live with both parents, and 84% live without a dad. Nationwide 1 in 3 children live without a father. In 1960, only 11% of children lived without their father. (Luke Rosiak, Washington Times, Fathers disappear from households across America)
That trend is bad news for the kids, and for society as well. Kids without fathers are more likely to engage in early sexual activity. Boys without fathers consistently score lower on a variety of moral indexes such as measure of internal moral judgement, guilt following transgressions, acceptance of blame, and moral values. Girls without fathers are more likely to cheat, lie, and not feel sorry after misbehaving. Both boys and girls without fathers study 3.5 hours less per week on average, their scores are lower on achievement tests, their scores are lower on intelligence tests, their grade point averages are lower, and they’re more likely to experience socio-economic disadvantage as adults. And the list of problems goes on and on. If you’re interested, you can read more in a paper written by two Canadian PhDs, Sarah Allen and Kerry Daly. (Allen and Daly, Father Involvement Research Alliance, The Effects of Father Involvement: An Updated Research Summary of the Evidence)
My Best Friend Rick
Growing up in Island Lake, Illinois, Rick was my best friend in grade school. He was one of the most intelligent people I ever knew. He was funny, and imaginative: every day he seemed to come up with some brilliant idea on how to have fun. He was a total blast to hang with. But Rick’s dad was a different story. His dad had problems and was at home sporadically. And when his dad was home, he was abusive. When I was 10, I slept over one night when Rick’s dad came home in the wee hours of the morning. Rick told me his dad sometimes beat him up, and I remember waking when I heard him open Rick’s bedroom door. I was terrified and pretended to sleep, but I peeked out enough to see his silhouette darkening the doorway. He stood there for a long time. Finally he turned and walked away. I guess he didn’t want to beat on the kids while a guest was in the house. Not long after that his father and mother split up for good. So from then on Rick didn’t have a father present at all. Rick was always a major underachiever in school, but within a year of his father leaving Rick became involved with a child pornographer, at the age of 11. He was confused and lost. Even though he was one of the brightest and most likeable people I ever knew, Rick fit almost every profile from that research paper written by Allen and Daly.
How Jesus Loved People
People were attracted to Jesus, and some wanted him to pray for their kids. So they brought their children with them and approached him. Thinking they were doing Jesus a favor, his disciples refused them, like a receptionist refuses the “wrong” people trying to get in to see a CEO. But Jesus said, Let them come to me, and don’t prevent them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Matthew 19:13-14)
Love Like Jesus
You know it’s funny how our culture values certain ways men spend their time. Working is highly valued. Football and other sports are highly valued in most circles. Hunting and fishing are highly valued in many circles. Playing video games is valued in certain circles. But for too many men, spending time with kids just isn’t important or manly, especially if it takes away from work. This cultural influence reinforces whatever reluctance already resides inside us.
I know a cop in his early thirties who works in Springfield, Oregon. This guy likes to talk with the men he arrests while they ride to the station in the back of his car. He frequently tells them they need to spend time with their kids. They usually respond that they’re just not interested, that they don’t want to. Then this cop I know tells them all the same thing, he says, “You know, you’re going to find that most of the time, what your kids need from you and what you want aren’t the same thing. Do it anyway.” That’s good advice not just for criminals, but for you and for me too.
That’s good advice because often that’s what love is: doing what someone needs, even when I don’t want to. That’s good advice because of the radical difference it will make for your kids.
And that’s good advice because Jesus did it that way: He spent time with the kids. And he said what we do unto the least of these we do unto him. God is pleased when the hearts of fathers are turned toward their children. (Luke 1:17)
So to love like Jesus, love your kids, and I’m not talking about a feeling, I’m talking about being there and doing. I’m talking about becoming engaged, regularly, and consistently.
Jesus loved people by engaging with the little children.
You can too.
[Image via Tobyotter – Creative Commons]
- It should be noted that juvenile firesetters fall into several different categories. The psychologist’s comment I refer to in this blog post was directed toward the most extreme and most dangerous type of firesetter.
- “Rick’s” name was changed to protect him and his family.