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Taking stock of a quarter-century of fatherhood

When and if your adult kids decide that, in retrospect, you really were good parents, that's a powerful thing. (Photo: Tom Tangney and his daughter on vacation)

I recently realized that I have a quarter-century of fatherhood under my belt, so I thought it was about time
I came up with a few ideas about being a Dad.

I’ve whittled my list down to four crucial ideas, culled from over 25 years worth of experience.

Failure is not only an option, it may be the preferred choice

Long before I ever even became a father, I took great solace and comfort in a study I ran across that looked at a couple of centuries worth of highly successful individuals.

That study found one surprising common denominator among these eminent figures: most of them had failure-prone fathers. It wasn’t a particular personal or cultural trait or a religious approach; it wasn’t the profession or the age of their parents; or whether the parents were disciplinarians or not. None of those things bound these various success stories together. The key, more often than not, was the unsuccessful Dad.

Just imagine the relief all fathers should feel with that information. I’m not suggesting we should try to fail, but it’s nice to know that if we do, our kids may not suffer unduly. It may in fact propel them to greatness. It’s the ultimate safety net for fatherhood. Sweet.

Mark Twain is spot on, but only half right

In one of his many witticisms, Mark Twain took on the persona of a grown-up son when he wrote:

When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

This is the dream of every Dad – that eventually your kids will come to appreciate your fathering skills, even if they didn’t do so at the time. It’s also the somewhat smug justification dads can invoke to explain why they do what they do.

And if and when that actually happens, when your adult kids decide that, in retrospect, you really were good parents, that’s a powerful thing.

But just as your kids, given time, may be re-assessing you as a Dad in a more positive light, you may start re-assessing yourself a little more harshly.

My kids may have turned out just fine, but in retrospect, couldn’t I have spent a little more time with them? Played with them a little longer? Helped them a little more with their homework and complained a little less about their TV shows? Why didn’t we go car-camping just a few more times?

Now these may be minor and unavoidable regrets, but they are regrets all the same no matter what your kids say now. And that’s not a bad place to be – to have your kids think you’re a little better than you really are.

Empty nests are never really empty

Both my daughters went back east to college, so Paige and I became “empty-nesters” a couple of years ago.
That’s a time of trepidation for many parents who fear they might be losing touch with their children. Moms and Dads start getting nostalgic about their kids, wishing they were toddlers again, or grade-schoolers, maybe even the dreaded teenagers they once were. They flat out miss their kids and may feel their role (as parents) has become obsolete.

But if my experience is any guide, your kids may need you now more than ever. I swear I talked more often and had longer conversations with my kids during their first year away at college than I did their senior year in high school when we were living under the same roof.

Parents who spend all their energies mourning the loss of their children’s younger selves may miss out on the joys of parenting them right now as they grow into adulthood.

Empty nests can still make for soft landings in the future.

The key to fatherhood may not be the father

The easiest path to great fatherhood is actually quite simple, but also quite tricky – and that is, marry a great mom.

Your job as Dad is infinitely easier if you’re lucky enough to be paired with someone who knows how to be a good mother.

Now I realize that’s easier said than done. Marriage is hard enough for some people, let alone trying to work kids into the mix.

But if you’re intent on raising a family, a good mom is obviously a huge help. A good man is hard to find, the saying goes, but a good mom may be even harder, and certainly more important.

So take your time, prospective fathers, and choose wisely. Finding the right Mom is not the only way to be a great Dad, but it helps enormously.

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