I cringe from the couch as my wife tries to play some type of good guy/bad guy battle with my 4-year-old. It’s lacking character voices and held together with a paper-thin plot.
My wife is utterly amazing (like 5-kids-in-7-years amazing), but her “play” game is a weak point, and she knows it. I can only laugh as her eyes plead with me to take over.
Surely, there’s no replacing mama. She’s our kids’ go-to parent most of the time for snuggles and butt wipes and tuck-ins and lunch-making, and of course when someone gets hurt, there is but one wounded battle cry:
But my kids deeply need me as well, just in different ways. These needs solidify my role as a primary parent, equally important as mama . . . and certainly not a babysitter. Where mama imparts the importance of bike helmets, I cheer on our kids as they test their limits at the skatepark (helmets on, of course). We’re partners who not only complement each other, but also provide a necessary counter-balance to one another.
I like to think I’m in on the zeitgeist in this way. The rising importance of dads is evident all over the Internet. Sites like Fatherly, Good Men Project and Dadcraft share inspiring stories touting fatherhood as much more than bringing home the bacon. Doyin Richards’ blog encourages thousands of dads to embrace doin’ daddy work. And new books, like Josh Levs’ All In, make the case for parental leave reform to allow dads more family time.
Dads are all the rage.
Of course, it’s not really about us. It’s not about me. It’s not about how much fun I have playing with my kids or about passing on a legacy. It’s not even about those beautiful, magical moments when simply looking at them makes the tears well up . . . it’s that my kids need me.
And they need me in roles just as important as the first-string boo-boo kisser and comfort giver.
Head Coach Dad
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. – Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights
Great coaches instill confidence where there is doubt. They turn weakness into strength and see opportunity in the midst of challenge. My kids deserve the same from me to help them become the best versions of themselves.
As much as possible, I speak words of affirmation to build their confidence. Positive and specific praise not only shows love, it develops self-belief that they’ll draw on when dad isn’t around to pick them up after they fall. Also, I’m careful to applaud the effort more than the outcome to encourage experimentation and risk, whether that’s after a soccer game or during homework. When my kids become too results-focused, they tend to miss the bigger lessons and avoid doing anything that might challenge them, stretch their comfort zones or heaven forbid . . . end in failure.
Head coach dad also brings a little tough love. Whenever necessary, I drop a pre-game speech to reinforce expectations because sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants before game time:
No acting a fool up in here. Please and thank you to the waitress. You drop a crumb, you clean it up before we leave. If you can’t get the job done, it’s you and me and a to-go box sitting back in this van. Now, let’s go have some fun and enjoy a meal where we don’t have to do the dishes! Who is with me?
And, as any good coach, I always look for ways to help them grow as people. I love their big dreams and wild imaginations and I want to do everything I can to nurture their desires to be better. One specific thing we do is come up with a monthly personal challenge (fancy talk for “gimme one thing you want to get better at this month.”)
This could mean working on dribbling skills or writing the alphabet legibly or simply working on finishing veggies at dinner. There’s no pressure to do it and no consequence for not doing it. But, when the kids provide updates at our weekly family meeting, it’s clear they’re developing self-efficacy at an early age. Pretty sweet.
Our kids want nothing more in the world than to spend one-on-one time with mom and dad. No video game or TV show or new toy trumps the kids’ desire for our attention. And with five kids under nine, attention is at a premium.
So, most days I’m intentional about carving out “papa time”- 15 minutes of one-on-one time with each child away from the rest of the crazies.
Sometimes we get sweaty from front-yard soccer. Sometimes we simply go for a walk and talk about why bees are more awesome than caterpillars. It doesn’t matter what we do. It simply matters that they know I’m listening, that I want to spend time with them, that I care about the details of their funny little lives, and that there is nothing more important to me than me being their dad.
In these one-on-one moments, I get to ask questions, offer perspective, listen to silly stories and see a bit deeper into a world that may be guarded in the busyness of our large family.
And at the end of the day, I realize I need this time just as much as my kids need it.
Mother Lover Dad
Although they may not appreciate it yet, my kids also need a dad who deeply loves their mom.
Our kids see us dance together and kiss and joke and hug and laugh. We laugh hard. They see us work through problems, coordinate schedules, disagree respectfully and admit mistakes (well, at least dad admitting mistakes. Zing! 😉
I also make it abundantly clear that Erin was my wife before she was their mom, and I will protect, love and cherish my wife at all costs. Thus, when one of the kids offers up some sassy-pants lip to Erin, I don’t hesitate to set them straight.
I love you, son. But do not talk to my wife like that again.
The exchange is always a bit stunning at first as they try to process the fact that I am not only “dad” but also Erin’s husband who intensely cares about her and will defend her.
Modeling this relationship based on mutual love and respect does far more to teach our kids about teamwork and marriage than any fairy tale story. It lays the groundwork for how I hope they treat their future loves AND how they should expect to be treated by someone who loves them.
The kids’ favorite kind of dad is Fun Dad. I relish this role because it’s an area where I’m legitimately superior to my wife, mainly because she’s too busy caring about our safety or organizing the utensil drawer or folding laundry or tackling room parent duties. Parenting balance at its finest.
I utilize a dizzying array of storybook voices. Most of them are hybrid Christopher Walken or some type of rare Spanish-French accent. All of them are bad, but dangit if they don’t make for a more thrilling Goodnight Moon.
We also wrestle nearly every day. All my kids love to roughhouse, and I’m happy to oblige, ready with a new wrestling name every single time I enter the ring. Be warned if you’re ever at our house and hear “Captain PunchaBooty” calling you to the ring.
I also try to connect learning with fun as much as possible. One time, this resulted in taking all of the kids to Thursday night bingo at the local American Legion Hall to learn about letters and numbers. The old-timers were not amused. We got through one game, but left after a premature “Bingo!” call from the 3-year-old nearly short-circuited all the pacemakers in the room. Maybe not a complete success, but we had fun – and that’s what Fun Dad does.
And on one glorious occasion, I pulled out my oldest son’s loose tooth with a javelin throw. When dad is a decathlete and son asks for help, you get creative. Video proof does exist, but my wife refuses to let it see the light of day.
Do my kids need this dad? Absolutely. Life finds a way of getting tough and uncomfortable and sad and terrifying. It’s my job to bring the fun.
Sometimes in the journey to build my kids into self-sufficient, confident adults, what they actually need from me is to back off. So if helicopter dad means hovering over every precious zig and zag, then I’m opting for sidecar dad.
Sidecar dad allows his kid to drive the motorcycle, read the map, take wrong turns and tip over…all right by her side. I’m there to avoid major catastrophe should I see it coming, but mostly I’m along for the ride: to offer advice when asked, to help pick up the car and set it back on the path if need be, to bring snacks and to proudly yell, “THIS IS AWESOME!” when her journeys lead us to the best adventures.
That’s why I frequently let my kids fail. I let them load the dishwasher ass-backwards. I let them fall off the monkey bars. I let them turn in homework that ain’t quite right. Sure, it’s difficult to watch your kid repeatedly take a ball off his face, but eventually he’ll learn to put his hands up. There’s no better way to nurture self-sufficiency.
This doesn’t mean that I subscribe to the hands-off, Al Bundy school of dadding. I’m definitely there with a hug after the monkey bar fall – and a spot for the next attempt; I’m there to talk about why none of the dishes got clean and to offer help in the next loading attempt; I’m there to talk about why the homework grade wasn’t what he hoped for – and how we can make it better next time.
There isn’t just one most important type of dad, but I picture Sidecar Dad as kind of like all of the dads riding together. Head Coach Dad gives the pre-game pep talk, Fun Dad is belting out a harrowing anthem, Only Child Dad is building trust with the driver and Mother Lover Dad has taught her to zoom on past the boy who calls her names.
Of course, because our nature is to shield our kids from hurt and failure, being Sidecar Dad can be awfully difficult. But, I take comfort in the fact that they are learning how to figure things out for themselves, which might make it the type of dad my kids need most.
Hence, I’m always up for the ride, but I’m sure to bring my helmet because, boy can it get bumpy.
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