These are harrowing times. As I write this, 35,000 people are reported dead (though that number is likely much higher) in the U.S. from the COVID-19 virus. As you read it, we’re probably well over 40,000. We’re losing nearly 2,000 people a day.
They were beloved family members, sources of comfort, repositories of insight and life lessons. People others counted on, with summer plans, appointments to keep, shopping lists on their fridge. People with lives to live, who weren’t done. People just like us.
I’m not generally morbid, but I am sentimental. This got me thinking about living each day like it’s my last. Not in a hokey way, in a “shit just got real” way. Of course, social distancing doesn’t lend itself to going full bucket list, but what I’m pondering is, if I were gone tomorrow, what would my kids know about their father?
Dads (and the moms who are reading), how will we be remembered? How do we know the impression we’re leaving is the one we intend? What wisdom have we imparted, what traditions, recipes, inside jokes, life hacks have we left behind? And beyond fond memories, what of our parenting will persist?
I’ll admit, in non-corona times, I have occasionally worried over what I’m providing, more than what I’m giving. I can get caught up in the stuff, in keeping up with the Joneses. But ask me what I remember about my father, and you will not hear about what I got for Christmas or whether we took annual ski vacations. (We didn’t. I still love him.)
During this quarantine, most of us are spending more time with our kids, in more focused doses, than ever before. We’re writing the story, creating the memories. Not every minute must be engineered to be perfect memory, but each moment—most especially the banal ones—is a memory, whether we like it or not.
Recently, my children informed me in the bluntest of terms that they consider me a bad cook. Now what? Do I take on a new hobby and learn to cook? What do I want them to remember more: Dad’s impeccable meals, or how it felt to cuddle together on the couch with a pizza? (Chances are, we’ll be at a standoff until they finally agree to eat something green that requires chopping.)
Nothing burns me up quite like hearing people describe dads as “babysitting” their kids. I’m not a chaperone or a manny. My kids aren’t my buddies.
I’m a father, and I’m hard at work preparing them for the complex and sometimes brutal world that awaits them. Am I doing so? Can my six-year-olds calm themselves and articulate their needs clearly? Can my 11-year-old problem-solve, find his way home, care for his siblings?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m determined to get my kids coping and problem-solving as soon as they’re ready. When they want help with a task, I often respond by asking them questions, trying to probe and guide their problem-solving processes. When it’s a job they’re not ready to do on their own, the older ones watch me do it while I talk through the steps.
Count me as an acolyte of Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D., author of Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem, who wrote:
It’s important to show our kids the tremendous satisfaction, even joy, that comes with overcoming an obstacle or mastering a new skill. Teach your kids to take a deep breath, to analyze the situation and to think of ways to approach it. Most problems can be managed, either by working at them or by finding appropriate help.
I’m no participation-trophy dad, but we know that self-esteem has an outsized effect on nearly every aspect of a child’s life. I want my kids to know they’re valued and loved, unconditionally. Even if I never hugged them again (a thought that digs an instant pit in my stomach), I would want them to carry an ingrained sense of being lovable, cherished, and important into young adulthood and beyond.
You can find literature to support any method of instilling an enduring sense of identity in your kids. Personally, I grew up convinced that achievement equaled value, and I’m determined to make sure my kids have a more innate sense of their own worth than I did.
I’m starting by recognizing them as humans with something to contribute. I try to focus on them when they talk to me and give them one-on-one attention as much as possible, even though they have three clamoring siblings. I express delight in them, their interests, curiosities, jokes, and discoveries.
When it comes to the topic of leaving a lasting legacy, no matter when that day comes, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that I can’t orchestrate it. I can only just be me.
In his book No Regrets Parenting, Harley A. Rotbart, professor and vicechair of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Denver, wrote, “Your legacy depends on your kids really knowing you. That can happen only if they spend enough meaningful time with you to hear what you think, see what you do, and learn what you have to teach.”
I’ve decided to trust that with a little mindfulness and intention, a lot of authenticity, a handful of life skills training, and a healthy helping of takeout, my children might just have a happy childhood yet.