Our younger son just turned 17, and he's looking at colleges. Meanwhile, our older son is on track to graduate from college next spring. For the first time in two decades, my wife and I may be on the verge of an empty nest, which has put me in a reflective mood.
I sat down one day recently to think of some life lessons that raising two sons has taught me. As a thought exercise, I decided to think of "five things a father should never do" based on my experiences as a dad.
Here's what I came up with.
› Never strike a child. I grew up in the era of corporal punishment. Most men of my father's generation believed in the admonition "spare the rod, spoil the child." Spanking, paddling and belt whippings were part of the culture. (Some say the "rod" in the Bible verse is actually a shepherd's staff for leading, not striking.)
Every child needs discipline, of course, but striking a child for disobedience is wrong because it almost always comes from a place of anger. In my experience, it also creates emotional distance between a parent and child that is hard to bridge later in life.
I loved and respected my dad, but I didn't feel like I could 100% be myself until he passed away. I probably only got eight or 10 belt whippings as a child, but they left their mark and created a wedge. One was when I was 12 for accidentally letting the cellar door slam. The punishment didn't fit the crime, and I never forgot it.
When our first son was born, I swatted him on the rump once when he was a toddler. A little voice in the back of my head said, "What are you doing?" and I never did it again.
› Never play favorites. My favorite football coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has a saying about competition. In training camp, when players are competing for jobs, Tomlin sometimes observes: "Two dogs, one bone."
That works for NFL players but not for children. Kids should never feel like they are competing for family resources, love and attention — although sometimes circumstances (like a disruption in family cash flow) may lead them to think that way. Fathers, take pains to treat your children fairly and give them equal portions of love and resources.
When I feed our two dogs in the morning, I put their food in separate rooms and set them down by their portion. They both immediately sprint to the other dog's bowl because eating stolen food is so much tastier.
No, children aren't dogs, but sometimes they have the same impulses.
› Never refuse to help. The older I get, the more I believe that learning to respectfully ask for help is the key to a successful life. I'm not talking about kids asking for frivolous things. I'm talking about honest requests for help when they're stuck or confused or scared or in trouble.
Most of the pain I brought upon myself as a young adult came from the inability to ask for help when I was sad and lonely. I've never asked a good person for help and been turned down. In fact, most good people seem flattered that I asked.
I tell my college students that the key to "adulting" — I love that word — is to "show up, do the work and, when in doubt, ask for help." Life is so much simpler when you do those three little things.
› Never clam up. Most men have a mute button that activates when they're upset. It's there for a reason. It's like a breaker switch for when the testosterone kicks in.
The problem comes when men forget to unmute. There's nothing worse than a dad who falls in love with the solitude that comes with cutting off communications with a child. In fact, whole lives — and generations — have been ruined by good men who decided to "tune out" and "turn off" indefinitely.
The problem with clamming up is that sometimes kids get sick of the "silent treatment" and lose interest in what you have to say.
› Never hold a grudge. It's one thing to get your feelings hurt. It's another to have a "one strike and you're out" policy for the people in your life. Anyone who would shun a child for a mistake — even a big one — has a warped view of parenting.
Forgiveness is a two-way street and if you shut down one lane, get ready to be stuck in traffic for the rest of your life.
Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-757-6645.