Things I Wish I Knew About Being a Dad Before I Got There

Preface: The first “Things I Wish I Knew About…Before I Got There” was about heading off to college, and it was hand-written on torn-off notebook pages, snail-mailed home from the Persian Gulf. The second was on entering the real world after graduating, and it was typed and emailed. The third, about marriage, was presented as part of the wedding ceremony I officiated. Now, to complete the cycle of entering adulthood while keeping up the traditional format change, here is:

Things I Wish I Knew About Being a Dad Before I Got There

Everyone says being a father is both the hardest and the best thing you’ll ever do. Fortunately and unfortunately, everyone is right. Fatherhood is where you need the most advice and where it matters the least, because it’s pretty tough to remember To Feed Them on Your Dreams when you’re picking turds up off the carpet. All of which to say is I made this list, but it doesn’t matter much except, maybe, to help us all realize there is no Right Way to parent- there is just the Way That Works for You. It’s just tough to know which way that is. In a way, that encapsulates these lifetime lists taken as a whole. You never need advice more than when you’re stepping out into the world as a high school graduate, and you’re never less inclined to listen to it. You’re never more willing to take in every scrap of written experience then when you’re about to become a parent, but you’ll never need it less.

It’s also worth saying that this is an idealized portrait of parenting; being a dad is a never-ending battle where your stocks of patience are always dangerously depleted and the enemy is implacable. But since it’s never-ending, if you screw up, you always get another chance.

So, with that less-than-thunderous intro, I present: Things I Wish I Knew About Being a Dad Before I Got There.

  • Peek in your kids when they’re sleeping. No matter how obnoxious they were that day, seeing them sleeping more soundly then you could dream of will reset your patience faster than you could imagine.
  • Introduce them to the things that you love, that drive you, but be ready to follow their path as well. (Baseball? Sure!)
  • Guide; instruct; listen.
  • You will find yourself debating the merits not putting spaghetti in your hair; you cannot win, but you can’t give in, either. Because spaghetti doesn’t belong in your hair.
  • There will be moments when you’re convinced your child is a genius. There will be moments when you’re convinced she’s doomed. Both are equally false.
  • If possible, have a thing with your kid that’s just a reminder you’re there. (I like to shake hands with Henry.)
  • Commiserating and comparing with other parents is a grand tradition, but never get into a complain-off or a show-off. Just let each other know you’re not alone.
  • Keep your habits, hobbies, and date nights. The best way to teach your kids about a wholesome, well-rounded life is to live one. But include them in everything you can, too.
  • Set high expectations for your kids. Support them when they fall short.
  • The teacher isn’t out to get your child, but neither is she a private tutor. Be reasonable, listen to her feedback, and make sure your child knows why being a good student is important.
  • Eating a Cheerio off the floor won’t kill a kid. I’ve tested this. Many times.
  • Expand her worldview and her world whenever you can.
  • Let them solve problems on their own, until you actually need to leave the house on time, then just tie the damn shoes.
  • Let them take risks, until bodily harm is clearly imminent, then just take away the damn stick.
  • You wanna play rough, you gotta be tough.
  • Icepacks and bandaids solve a lot of tears.
  • Read to them.
  • You won’t need to build compassion in your kid- it comes naturally. But it can be stamped out by the world, so you have to nurture it.
  • Encourage, but don’t lie. Correct, but don’t berate.
  • Have fun!
  • Keep a schedule and a routine, but know when it’s time to break it. Ice cream for dinner once in a while makes memories; ice cream for dinner every night makes nightmares.
  • Family dinnertime. Protect it. Except date night.
  • Kids don’t learn values from reading books or watching TV. They learn values by following you. They’re always listening; even when you think they’re not. Maybe especially then.
  • Parenting is not a competition, not matter how much that other mom wants to make it one.
  • There will come a time when you’re scrubbing vomit off the floor at three in the morning, after having worked late and before having to go in early, and also the car is still making that noise and did you forget to fill out that paperwork we need for daycare and then you’ll get peed on. And you should laugh, because getting peed on is, let’s face it, pretty funny. Then get back to sleep ASAP.
  • Set your rules and stick to them.
  • Being a parent is a joy and a struggle, and don’t lose sight of either one.
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