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Most dads have no idea how big an impact they have on their children’s lives. Let’s look at six ways fathers leave a mark, for better or for worse. None of us does well at all six, certainly not me, my father, or his, but if we just do okay at these missions and maybe excel at one or two, I think we have done a pretty good job:
I learned all this largely from my father’s words and examples. The first big teaching moment I remember was when I was 8, and I had been an extremely disobedient and defiant child for those 8 years. Until this incident, I had responded to my many painful and appropriate spankings with a smirking little remark such as, “Do you need to spank me some more? If it will make you feel better, go ahead, because I can take whatever you dish out!”
And I always did too, without ever flinching or shedding a tear.
One day my dad told me that he was going to spank me with his own hand until I said I was sorry and cried, which I had never done. After some considerable effort, I was still the stoic soldier.
He finally stopped, looked at me, and said, “No matter what we do, we just can’t reach you. I am so afraid that we are going to lose you.”
When I saw the tears rolling down his cheeks, that did it. I started crying, and we hugged so hard. After that I was about as good a child as I had been bad. He let me know that expressing fears and tears are a part of being a healthy man.
When I got engaged to be married, I asked him what I should expect. He and mom told me this, which I still consider the most practical advice on marriage I have ever been given:
“We would always look back every year on our last anniversary and remark that we were more in love than the year before. But we were surprised at how hard we had had to work at it. Early on we used to hope that the next year would be easier, and then one year it was. We were grateful that we hadn’t had to work at it very hard that year. The next year we had more problems with each other than you could shake a stick at, and for the first time we had to get some marital counseling. We learned our lesson, and we think you should know two things about marriage. It is the hardest thing you will ever have to do, but it is our greatest blessing in life, worth every ounce of time and effort you put into it, absolutely. So don’t take your marriage for granted!”
When I got into my 30s and was covered up with time pressure to put more into my work and yet more into my marriage and also our three children, I began to look at my calm father in admiration, and I wanted his acceptance. I began to idolize and admire him, but when I let him know that, he would have none of it.
He told me that he had once expressed strong admiration for a gifted friend of his who had gone to college on a “purely athletic” scholarship: “I will never forget what he told me – Don’t put me up on no pretzel! Well that took him down a peg real quick! I grew up admiring my father way too much, and I could never live up to that image. So don’t idolize me – just be yourself, and you will turn out fine.”
If we’re humble about our faults like my father was, we can make it easier for our children not to repeat our same mistakes. Late in his productive life, my dad was depressed from too little work and too much alcohol. I saw the first situation but not the second, and I asked him to read a couple of popular books I knew he would like, to help me with some writing I was doing.
A week later he told me with the saddest expression that he had tried hard but just couldn’t understand what I’d given him. “I think I have pickled too much of my brain with alcohol,” he said, “so I hope you will forgive me and that you won’t do the same with your brain.”
His honesty and humility has made it a lot easier for me to fulfill these two hopes.
My father died suddenly of his first heart attack at age 63, but I am grateful that we were fully caught up and at peace with each other when it happened. He had left his mark on me, and we both knew it.
However your father might have blessed you, for better or for worse, I would love to be able to share with others what some of you have learned from your fathers. Please feel free to shoot me an E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown, Lexington and Shelbyville ad via mynewlife.com.