“Father! — to God himself we cannot give a holier name.” — William Wordsworth, English Poet, 1770-1850
Last Father’s Day I wrote about the Importance of Fathers. That article sparked some awareness in myself to the small but powerful ways we dads have in impacting our children, and particularly our sons. I say small, because our influence may be wielded with little effort and therefore with little care. According to the statistics mentioned in that article, if a dad so much as walks through the door every day, a child’s life is drastically changed for the better. However, this isn’t simply because of the presence of a male in the home, rather, those many slight and often involuntary ways men influence their family.
My Dad’s Encouragement
Being that my parents were divorced since I was but a wee tyke, my interactions with my dad were limited to summer time and the occasional holiday visit. In some ways I think these limited interactions made a more lasting impression than otherwise, as I would ponder and wring from them what small drops of fathering I could use to carry me until my next visit. One instance in particular comes to mind. I was about 7 years old I believe, and I was playing in the front yard of my grandparents’ house in Memphis. My dad was out there and I asked him, “Dad, do you think I could ever fly like Superman?” I have written before about my childhood hero, Superman, and this was likely the height of my fascination. Without hesitation my dad said, “I think you can do anything you put your mind to.” His response meant the world to me.
Though I doubt he realized it, I was really asking, “Dad, can I be a strong and good man like Superman? What are my limitations? Could I fly?” That’s the weight this question carried, and thankfully he responded rightly. I looked to the man I barely knew to either tell me to stay behind and tend the garden, or saddle my horse and bless my quest for adventure. It’s hard to imagine a dad responding with anything but resolute affirmation, that is, until I think about how careless my own responses have been to my sons. My dad is a dreamer, and so am I, but I have seen a pragmatic streak in myself that has become a defining characteristic of my fathering and I know has resulted in discouragement where I should have fanned the flames of childhood wonderment.
Our Words Matter
“One father is more than a hundred Schoolemasters.” — George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, English Poet, 1593-1633
Many father’s, myself included, haven’t fully grasped the greatness of their role in the life of their children. We have the power to break or strengthen the spirits of our children, and often times those children who look up to us as uncles or mentors. Sons particularly, are always wondering, “Do I have what it takes?” and are looking for subtle clues from their father to know whether they can come out of their familiar den of timidity and face the open world with confidence in their own hardihood.
I think of Theodore Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Sr., and his famous encouragement to his able-minded yet frail son:
“Theodore you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. I am giving you the tools, but it is up to you to make your body.”
Teedie (young Theodore) responded rightly, “I will make my body!“, that was his part to play. However, how different would it have been had his father said, “Theodore, there is nothing more we can do. Here are some pills the doctor says you need to take for the rest of your life. This is simply the lot you were dealt and I suppose you best get used to it. Hey, at least we’re rich, right?” Perhaps Roosevelt Jr. had a determined enough spirit that he would have pressed onward regardless; many men have. But, that isn’t to say it would have been entirely the same as receiving his father’s encouragement.
Our Actions Matter
“He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” — Clarence Budington Kelland, American Writer, 1881-1964
Kids are watching more often than they are listening. Our actions impress upon them the nature of our indwelling attitude towards them. If they show interest in something to which we respond with apathy, it may come across as ‘dad doesn’t believe in me‘. Do this enough, and to them dad becomes someone who extinguishes rather than enheartens.
For some reason I have had the damnedest time bringing my sons along for whatever work or chore I am doing. Not because they don’t want to, but because I am used to doing things solo; likely the result of being raised as an only-child and left to my own devices. Regardless of the reason, it is something I have to remind myself of: “Oh that’s right, I have two boys who can do stuff with me!” Bringing them into your world, your manly world, will do wonders to encourage their spirit. However, for that to happen, it helps a great deal to have a manly world to bring them into.
Unfortunately I have not lived up to the expectations of unaided human flight to which my 7 year old self was so emboldened by my father to pursue. To be fair, there was a spell where I was a teenager, and there were guitars and girls for which he should have warned me: “You can do anything you put your mind to…as long as you don’t let rock and chicks get in the way…“, though, I suppose it all turned out alright. And, while my dad did a good job of encouraging me on that day, there were many other times when he missed the mark completely. Sometimes he never took the shot, as it were, and others he pierced me with his actions, leaving me with wounds I can feel to this day.
It’s not always easy to be the encourager; to think in the moment about the preciousness of our child’s naiveté and the raw form of their character that we are sculpting with our words and actions. Yet, I believe we can make a step in the right direction if we commit to being their biggest champion. No grown man ever faulted his father for believing in him too much.