3 Lessons of Fatherhood

It’s less terrifying than you think

They grab your heart and frustrate your mind.

I have now been a father for 3 years. That’s my son Aziz who by all accounts is healthy, happy, well-loved and adorable. We are so blessed to have him in our lives and I could not be more proud of him. He is a never-ending, spell-binding fountain of happiness.

Now that that is out of the way, let me tell why this job is so hard. First of all, it’s a job. Being good at your job is hard work and although this is not a career help article, I believe it is meaningful to look at parenthood through this lens. Of course, being well prepared is a key ingredient to being successful at your job and so it is for being a parent too.

If you are thinking about having a child, have recently become pregnant or just getting started, I hope you find what I am writing to be informative, a little unsettling and hopefully, useful. If you are thinking to yourself, I have no actual qualifications for this job and that everyone around you is going to find that out about you in short order, then you, my friend, are perfectly suited for this new line of work!

That’s the beauty of this arrangment. You don’t need a license, a degree or even a note from your mother. You can literally take your new roommate directly from the hospital to your domocile and thus begins your indoctrination into the world’s most terrifying job — being a parent.

Let’s assume for the moment that you will get help with some of the basic parts of caring for an infant like burping, swaddling, feeding and getting them to sleep. No easy tasks but I want to help shed some light on a couple of other concepts that should at least give you some comfort that you can do this.

Never mistake cuteness for what really lurks inside these delightful creatures — a constant test of your resolve.

Don’t Be A Doormat

Oh how delightful parenthood would be you never had to say those two little letters — NO. Yep, saying no will be your top challenge as a parent and easily the difference between getting respect or becoming a doormat. I apologize for being so binary but that is really what is at stake here.

You either achieve becoming someone your child respects or someone they view as a doormat

And it literally starts right away. Crying is emotional blackmail.

In theory, you are currently a calm, rational adult and when visiting a friend’s house you might ask for a cup of water saying something like this, “May I have a glass of water.” Now enter your new roommate who lacks the same manners as you and who’s request takes on a much more forceful, immediate and bizarrely tone deaf tenor — screaming at the top of their lungs.

Now of course, if your child wants water, you are going to give them water. That’s obvious. What is not so obvious is how you give them the water when they request it that way. Don’t miss the opportunity to correct your child by reminding them in a positive tone to ask nicely by saying the magic word — please.

Everything in your life has changed. You are now a parent. You have little or no time for the things you have always enjoyed — reading a book, sleeping in, watching TV, playing badminton, whatever floats your boat. And nobody at your job is going to cut you any slack. It is super tempting to miss these moments to correct your child because you are tired, you want a moment to yourself, and getting them to say please is extra work.

Pause for a moment to consider what your bundle of joy is really doing here. They are testing you. They are watching you intensely to see what they can get away with. They are lazy too. Screaming that they want water is easy. Saying please is hard work. If they see that you are not going to insist on doing the hard work of reminding them to say please, they just learned that they don’t have to either.

Now, let’s take a much more important situation — like walking across a street filled with moving cars. There will come a time no matter how careful you are where they will get free from you and dart into the street or at least start going in that direction when they are not within grabbing distance. Nothing will strike terror into your heart more than a moment like this and nothing will protect your child more than whether or not they have learned to listen to you. These are the moments when your hard work will pay off.

I can only hope the next thing he puts in his mouth is not dirt or sand.

Here are a couple of practical ideas to help you establish a tone of respect with your child:

Say no and let them cry it out

If they ask for candy when you are about to serve dinner. Do not cave in no matter how much they cry or how loud they become. Let them cry it out and remember it’s a test.

All they learn is how long or loud they have to cry in order to get what they want.

I know it’s super tempting to just give them what they want so you can get a moment of peace. Think of it this way. They don’t have anything else better to do. Testing you all day everyday is just what they do. Eventually they will get bored and move on to something else having learned that that didn’t work.

Come down to their level

If you say, “come over here” and they play as if they didn’t hear you and keep playing with their toes, try this…

And I mean this in the most literal sense. Bend all the way over and literally get in their face. And I don’t mean like a drill sergeant. I mean come over to the side of them and slowly, calmly bend all the way over or drop a knee and get your face down to their level. What you are doing is showing them that their behavior has not gone unnoticed and that you are willing to do the work to make sure that they know that they are important enough for you to stop what you are doing to get this situation addressed.

Let there be silence

Sometimes the absence of saying something speaks more powerfully than saying something. Just let a good 5–10 seconds go by without saying a word. Just be there next to them. You are calm, mostly serious and definitely not angry. There is nothing else going on but you and them right now. Then calmly pat them on the head or back and explain that they need to come over right now. They will have learned that once again, you are willing to do the hard work of waiting it out until you get the desired outcome.

Confuse them with word play

At some point, your precious joyful little creature will learn to say no to you. Everyone will joke with you that this day is coming and of course, it does but nobody tells you what to do about it. When it happened to me, I was just as lost as everyone else, then I tried something that has had surprising success.

In my case, my son learned to say “not you.”

For example, I might say, “it’s shower time” and he would retort, “not you.” The first fews times he did this, I had no idea what I should I do. The most obvious thing to do is say, “ yes me” and try to grab their hand and get them into the shower crying, kicking and screaming.

But that sucks. I hate having to forcibly grab my child in non-life threatening situations. I would much rather that they learn to respect me enough to come willingly. So here is what I came up with. I started saying “not you”. I still remember to this day the look of complete surprise on his face. He definetely was not expecting that.

Then it became a game. He would say, “not you”, I would say “not you”, he would say “not you” but now with a smile on his face and we would go back and forth like an Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” routine. It would usually devolve into me saying stuff like “go to your room” and him squealing, “no… you go to your room”, and then I would say ”go to the park” and on and on.

They are learning to use words and they not always sure how to use them

Use that to your advantage. If they say “I don’t want to” to something you want them to do, like “go get your shoes, please”, try a different tactic and ask them something completely different like “go get your truck”. It really doesn’t matter what you say as long as it’s something they either like or is so strange that they start viewing the whole exchange as a fun game. For example, you might have an exchange like this…

  • go get your monkey
  • no, you go get your monkey
  • go get your towel
  • no, you go get your towel
  • go get your play doh
  • no, you go get your play doh

Eventually, turn the conversation back to the shoes and this time, they will happily go get them.

Sometimes yes, Sometimes no

Store merchandisers should all be shot in the head. Putting candy and chocolate at a kid’s level is both pure genius and pure parental hell.

The situation will come soon enough where you have to deal with the love of your life being upset because you won’t buy them what they want. Here’s my strategy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You can’t be a monster and never say yes and expect respect and the opposite is also true. If I get resistance to saying no, I usually also employ the “Come down to their level” tactic and gently request them to put it back on the shelf. Keep in mind that they need to put it back in the correct place on the shelf before your work is done. The entire episode should happen without crying or you having to grab it from their hands and putting it back for them.

This has happened more than a few times where I have my son at the store and I really do want him to have some candy. But I say no, just to make sure he knows that Daddy sometimes says no and means it. I know a lot of parents subscribe to the idea that you have reason with your child about why they are not getting something they want. I get that and support that concept. I want my son to respect the reason but sometimes the lesson is to respect his Dad with no reason at all. Sometimes it’s just straight up no because I remember lesson 1 — Don’t be a doormat.

Plan things for just the two of you so they learn how to be with you alone.

Be Present

I cannot tell you how many times I see parents looking at their smartphones while they are at the park with their children. Just don’t do it. Yes, every now and then you can look at it, but that is not being present.

Keep your smartphone in your pocket

Being present is how you show your child respect. If you expect respect from them you have show it to them too.

Now, I am no super parent. I don’t always enjoy playing with my son at a children’s playground that I have clearly outgrown but you have to do the work. Pay attention to what he’s doing and not doing at the park. You can’t expect him to know what to do or to be fully engaged. Sometimes you have to lead by example and climb into the jungle gym to get them going.

Being present means cheering them on when they do something new. Discuss with your partner about what you have noticed about new break throughs. Did they share with another child? Did they climb up the slide by themself?

Just try to keep in mind that they are watching you watching them. Make sure they see that you are engaged. Being at the park is not your time off. I know, it sounds like work. That’s because it is.

Watching TV

Arrrggghhhh. The dreaded TV or tablet or smartphone or whatever screen they get their hands on. Those magic screens will save small slices of your sanity. I’m of the opinion that one of the reasons kids like screen time is that so much of their focus is on establishing control. A tablet is a great way for a small person to realize a small measure of control in their lives. They can push buttons and see an immediate result that they produced.

They see Mommy and Daddy watch TV so of course they want to as well. Children mimic everything they see other people do.

But being present means that you are at least partially engaged with what they are watching. They want you to notice what they are seeing. Is there a scary monster? Is there a choo choo train? Did the bunny hop around?

The key to managing screen time is finding the balance between giving them freedom to explore on their own and engaging with them.

Screen time right before bed is a bad idea

There is so much to cover about bedtime that I’ll save more on that topic for another time. Just remember that if you have established a baseline of respect that you should be able to successfully negotiate turning off a screen.

Letting Them Fail

Always willing to grab whatever he sees in front of him… even at the store.

Where does self-esteem come from? At the risk of over-simplication, self-esteem is recovery from failure. If you have ever watched Serena Williams play tennis, you can see her mental gears turn when she fails which is more often than you might think. She processes failure until she succeeds.

Self-esteem is recovery from failure

Your child needs room to fail, to fall down, scrape a knee and get back up again. Many parents fear letting their kids fail — at anything. It sucks watching your precious toddler fall down and scrape a knee. Believe me, I have been there and that lump in your throat is a real thing. It’s a super uncomfortable feeling but protecting your child from life’s harder moments is not protecting them at all.

Like many of us adults, we clearly remember a time not too long ago where there were no seat belts, car seats, bicycle helmets, organic food and the list goes on. I am as a big believer in the advances of our modern world as embrace them all. Obviously, our son rides in the car buckled into his car seat, eats organic food and so on but it’s important to keep things in perspective and not get to a point that I see so many parents get to where kids are put into a position where they are not given the opportunity to fail.

So how does letting them fail apply to common situations your child will face? One thing that has caught my attention is the actions of the bully. Even at 3 years of age, this concept has already become apparent. I see this most often when kids don’t want to share toys, snacks and just about anything else and sometimes it’s your kid who is the bully in these situations.

What does a parent do when noticing that their child is being bullied by a kid near his age? First of all, this puts a parent in a very awkward position, as the last thing a parent wants to do is correct another parent’s child. The key I have found is not to overreact which means sometimes you have let the kids figure it out a bit on their own. Inevitably, you will have to step in and help your child cope.

When this happens, they are usually crying so you have pick them up and help calm them down. Once they calm a bit, it’s important to explain the importance of sharing with others which no easy task for children of this age to comprehend as so much of their world as this phase of their lives is centered around gaining control of their world. If it’s your child who is being bullied, there is no better time to start equipping your child the tools to fend for themselves. You can tell them that they can say, “I don’t like that” or “Don’t push me” or “You have to share nicely”. At this age, it’s really hard to know if your child really understands the words they are saying but through repetition your child will at least learn what to say in these situations.

As I write this I realize how often I am around other first-time parents with children my son’s age who are just as lost at times as I am. It is with great humility that I even suggest that what works best for me might work for you but I hope you have found something of value in this article. I very much look forward to any comments you may have and wish you the best on your journey!