NPR radio show “This American Life” put out a great podcast episode this week focusing on fathers. Specifically, it spoke of the difficulty dads have in communicating with their children. While not universal, I do see this as something that fathers have traditionally struggled with, especially dads who spend most of their time interacting with other adults, conducting serious business, and trying to provide for their families financially. Some of the issue may be cultural or generational, but generally I just wonder if fathers who struggle communicating with their children (and spouses, too) just don’t get enough practice.
I know relationships can be a tricky topic on the Internet. Being from an intact traditional American family doesn’t usually win me any points with those who don’t share my fortune. I was genuinely surprised by the amount of Valentine’s Day backlash I witnessed this year. Granted, Valentine ’s Day is easy to be skeptical about, and depending on your situation even easier to be bitter about, but my approach has been to leverage special days as a celebration of something good as opposed to something to be overly critical about. It’s in this vein that that I present a little post about fatherhood, from both the perspective of a child and a father, in honor of the upcoming day dedicated to them.
It might surprise readers to know that my dad hates playing games. I don’t exaggerate, he hates it. He would tell you that this all stems from the days of being an only child in a household where adults didn’t believe in “going easy” on the youngster. Childhood memories of landing on Boardwalk in Monopoly (when you didn’t own it) or being dealt a handful of “Z’s” and “Q’s” in Scrabble haunt him to this day. Dad is a contemplative person. He likes to take his time solving problems, so games that require reflex or speed (or players who push you to “hurry up and play”) were an additional source of stress. I don’t remember dad ever playing board games with the family if he could find any viable excuse not to.
So, you could imagine my surprise one day when my dad picked up an NES controller (at my goading) to play Super Mario Brothers with me. I had the first controller, so I played as Mario and zipped my way through about 4 levels worth of screens before finally giving up the ghost. After some quick instruction, dad started moving Luigi towards the first gumba on world 1-1, and didn’t jump in time.
Mario death music plays.
“I’m done.” He said as he set down the controller and walked out of the room.
I won’t lie, his departure may have been hastened by my laughter. Give me a break, I was fifteen! Nothing is funnier at that age than watching your dad of almost 50 die on the first gumba.
At times, I would be messing around by myself in the back yard with a baseball bat and glove, and dad would show up, in his shorts and long socks, donning his left-handed mitt and making a “throw it over here” motion. We would toss the ball around for a while, each of us gradually ramping up our throwing speed to try and make the others’ hand sting in a subtle act of alpha-male testing. Dad never looked like he was having very much fun, but he stood out there in the heat all the same.
As I look back, I’m somewhat overwhelmed that dad was willing to ignore his intense dislike of game playing in order to spend time with me, doing things that I enjoyed. It was just one small sacrificial gesture in what I am sure has been a lifetime full of sacrifices that I am unaware of. It’s also taught me to pay attention to the interests of my kids, and when possible, make an effort to engage them about those interests. It’s taught me to seek out things that we can do together, and to try to keep the lines of communication open so that I don’t become one of those fathers who has difficulty communicating with his family. I hope that someday my boys will do the same with their spouses and children. I hope that they understand the value of time spent together, and how relatively small the required sacrifice is. Nobody ever looked back at their parenting years and thought “I wish I would have taken a few more naps in front of the television”. But I’ll bet there are plenty of dads out there who think to themselves “I wish I would have spent more time with my kids when they were little.”
Not everybody has a great dad, but I do.
Dad by scott_hampson on flickr creative commons