From Dad to SuperDad — Five Essential Life Skills
It’s quite hard to stand up and say “Oh, I’m really good at doing so and so” in public, even if you have a pretty good idea it’s true. Worse, I’m British, so my natural cultural limitations make doing it positively awkward.
But the fact is we’re all good at something, and, as unlikely as it would have seemed if you’d known me in my younger, selfish days, it turns out I’m pretty good at being a dad.
So far, anyway.
After all, since my oldest has just turned thirteen that’s all I’m qualified to comment on, and every day that passes is new ground. However, with all that I’ve learned so far, I am more confident that ever that as we head into the stormy waters of adolescence, we will be able to navigate safely though to the other side using these five essential building blocks that got us this far so successfully.
Of course, I’m writing this from my own perspective of being a father, but the fact is that my other half and I are entirely in agreement on how we raise our kids and work together to do it. I should point out that this doesn’t mean we have a perfect relationship like something you’d see in a Disney cartoon — we definitely have our moments, some of them quite spectacular — but when it comes to the kids, we’re on point.
I acknowledge that this fact alone has made this incredibly important job a thousand times easier for us than many others and we both know from our own messy, uncertain and difficult childhoods it’s not a practical situation for everyone. Even so, these key points remain valid, it just might be applying them consistently could be harder.
In fact, if I could be frank for a moment, the reality is that the more difficult the situation at home, the more important they become.
Your children are beautiful, pure beings who will be entirely shaped by your view on life. What you do, how you talk to them (and each other as parents) and what your values are will become their basis for their outlook, thinking and approach to life. It’s a positively scary proposition but also one that is entirely your responsibility every moment of every day from the second they arrive.
After thirteen years of being a fully hands-on parent on equal footing with my other half, these are the five things that I would pick as being the most important lessons that I would offer up as advice.
1. Money is nothing, experience is everything
I could write a book on this point alone, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll reign it in.
Before the kids came along, we had both enjoyed a good lifestyle with plenty of money and lots of fun. But by the time number one arrived, things had taken a turn for the worst and my business was failing. Although we managed to eke out a living for the next few years, it was far from what we had planned.
In retrospect, this was your classic blessing in disguise. It turns out kids really couldn’t care less about money. No baby on the planet has demanded the latest designer stroller or bed and they don’t care if they’re dressed in designer baby-gros or not. Personally, I’ve never understood any of this anyway, but now that option was off the table for good in any case.
They only care about doing stuff. To be more precise, they only care about doing stuff with you, the people they love and look up to the most. Remember, you were awarded that mantle automatically when they were born, but you have to work to keep it. Doing stuff together is one of the best ways to do that.
Without exception, all of our best memories are building snowmen, going for walks, feeding ducks, playing in parks, playing board games, running the in rain, getting muddy, building crazy structures out of recycling materials, pretending, building forts, using our imagination or just rolling around the floor tickling and laughing. None of these require any money whatsoever, and all bought us closer. They still do.
Even birthdays were made special by using our own creativity to make it something utterly unique. There are numerous examples, but my favorite was probably our son’s tenth birthday. As he was a Star Wars fan, we’d worked though the days before to build an adventure with his friends, based in the local park and around the lake. He and his band of rebels had to find the Death Star plans by solving cryptic clues I’d left in key positions in the early hours of that morning. They also had to avoid the baddies, also strategically placed, and find the power-up packs.
The event was an instant hit with both the kids and the few parents that stayed with us. But half way round, and in the midst of the excited screams of discovery, I noticed one of the boys looked increasingly forlorn. He was a nice kid, from a very affluent family, but was more used to first class room service than looking for clues in a bush.
I asked him if he was OK, fully expecting a mundane answer and he looked at me with the saddest eyes possible for a child his age and gave an answer that not only almost broke my heart, it still haunts me to this day:
“I wish my dad was like you. He’s just always busy or never at home.”
Yes, you need to need to make a living, but just remember why. Time and experience trump money every time.
2. Listen intently to the ‘Big Stuff’. (Note: Everything is ‘Big Stuff’)
Your child looks up to you. They value your opinion on everything and you are the fountain of all knowledge, at least for the first ten years, until you begin to pass the torch. This means your approval and attention is invaluable to them.
And it starts with listening to that long, convoluted story about some butterfly they’ve found, or that god awful song they’ve just learned. It starts when they’re upset about the drawing they lost and how sad they are about it. It starts when someone says something mean and their heart is so pure they don’t understand it or why it makes them feel the way it does.
To a child this is big stuff, the equivalent of the most important event of their lives to date. What you do here will directly affect your relationship now and forever.
Your job is to listen, wholeheartedly and patiently. Kids are better at reading body language than you think, they can tell if you’re listening or not, and they will definitely notice if you have one eye on your phone. After that, you need to evaluate and work out whether you need to be supportive, encouraging, reassuring, loving or just be their dad.
This is where you build you relationship and make a bond that is unbreakable in the years to come. This is where you become the person that listens and makes it easy for them to talk to you. About anything.
If you get this right, that never goes away.
3. Manners, Respect and Empathy
I have literally lost count of the number of times a complete stranger has taken me or my partner aside and complimented us on how respectful and polite our children are. It feels me with a pride that is hard to describe and has even bought me close to tears on more than occasion.
I finally realized there are two reasons for this:
First, we have always been incredibly strict about manners and how you should treat people. Second, most parents are NOT strict about manners and how you should treat people, which is something I still don’t understand, but is a fact. This actually gives you a double advantage as your own kids will stand out all the more in every situation.
This, incidentally, includes things like waiting in a queue rather than pushing in (some parents actively advocate the opposite as way to ‘get ahead’ in life. Good luck with that), holding doors open, making eye contact when talking, and taking an interest in the person you’re dealing with, from the lowest rank to the highest.
And don’t even get me started on phones. Phones are great for scheduled entertainment, but not for restaurants, social situations, or when talking to other people. It’s rude, antisocial and disrespectful. Oh, and by the way, that includes you. Put it away. You’re the example and your child wants to be with you, not your Apple logo.
This might help:
How To Manage Screen Time with Your Kids
Our efforts in creating a happy medium for our two kids and what you can learn from our mistakes.
Trust me on this. It’s one of the most important life skills you can teach and will yield dividends far beyond strengthening your relationship.
4. Being there and keeping your word
If you make a promise, or even a deal, you have to stick to it and so do they.
If you tell your child they can have ice cream if they tidy their room, make sure they get it. However, if they don’t, then they won’t. No shortcuts, no re-deals. No, throwing a tantrum is not going work, nor is trying to get mummy on your side. We’re united, remember? My kids have long since given up trying that old tactic — the wall is impenetrable.
However, asking for help or seeking encouragement is fine. Of course we’ll help you get started, or sort out that difficult bit that’s got you stuck. That’s what we do.
Just as importantly, if you say you’re going to be there, be there.
I don’t care if your boss unexpectedly asks you to work over your kid’s football game/play/ballet recital — in the grand scheme of things, that isn’t important. Once you give your word, that’s it. If you break it, you’re sending the message that your word is not important and that’s a dangerous game to play. Of course, it’s OK to be careful about giving your word in the first place, all that matters is keeping it.
For example, if you’re going to be away on business in a different country on the day of your daughter’s first school play, you’re going to miss it. If so, you’ll speak to her about it first, explain the situation and get mummy to record it. Then, you’ll promise that not only will you watch it with her when you get back, you’ll want her to act out her scenes live at the same time. Perhaps she can even teach you her part so you can do it together. And you’re going to keep that promise, because she absolutely, positively will not forget.
And if you promise to be at the next one as part of the deal, the stakes just went up massively. Barring war, earthquake or fire, you will be there. And even if those things do happen, you’ll still make sure you get there battle scarred, shaken and burnt if necessary.
I can’t even remember how many situations have come up, some of them really quite difficult, that would have necessitated me missing something my kids were doing and wanted me to come to. I never have and, in truth, it wasn’t even that hard because my mindset has always been that I must in X place at Y time, whatever happens.
And, yes, some of those shows were truly awful, but the moment your child sees you and gives you that smile that says “I LOVE that you’re here!” it’s all worth it.
Finally, when you’re there, you’re going to be there, both physically and mentally. If you’re going to mope, look at your phone, sigh, sulk or make it clear in any other way that you hate ballet, then stay at home.
You’ll do marginally less damage that way.
5. Make your own screw ups the lesson
I sound like the perfect dad, don’t I?!
Of course I’m not. I’m merely listing the ideals I hold myself accountable to and, whilst it’s true to say I hit far more than I miss, I’m prone to my own weaknesses, errors of judgement and general screw ups. That’s just how we humans roll.
Screwing up isn’t a problem, not taking ownership is.
If you do something that goes against the rules, you step up, you man up, you publicly acknowledge where you went wrong and you apologize. Your apology should be genuine, sincere, on a grown-up level and in front of the kids.
I’ve learned this has two beneficial effects:
First, it sends the message it’s OK to make any sort of mistake, as long as you come clean, deal with it and put right any wrongs immediately. Often we use it to reinforce the fact that ‘even grown-ups get it wrong sometimes’ and that anyone can have a bad day. Your family loves you and will always forgive you, so learn and move on.
Second, it puts the children in a situation where YOU are asking THEM for something quite grown up — their forgiveness. You are saying how you’ve made them feel is important to you and also asking them what they think would have been the right way to handle the situation you got wrong.
It creates a home environment where your kids can be confident in themselves, not fearful of making a mistake and ready to put it right when they do.
There are, of course, many other responsibilities that we have as parents and it took me some time to identify the ones that I considered most important.
But while they need to learn rights from wrongs, manners and a myriad of other skills and values to get them through life, I firmly believe our role is also to allow them to have the longest, happiest childhood possible. We’re a long time grown up and once we pass that point, we can never go back.
So do the goofy stuff, make the memories, get involved, dance with them, play with them on their terms, laugh, listen and enjoy your children. Tell them you love them and are proud of them.
And most of all, be their dad.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, you’ll like these too:
If there’s one single thing we should all do as a family to stay close, it’s this:
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If there’s one thing — above all others — that all families should do (and do consistently), it’s this.
I’m with David Beckham on this one, I don’t care what Piers Morgan says:
The best memories always come from the simplest moments: