We know who fathers are, but what should fathers do?
Look, I could blame it on the fact that I’m from New Jersey, but maybe it’s just me. Wherever the truth lies, the vast majority of what I learned about life as a child came from syndicated television. I’m long past apologizing for it but I will say it left me more than a little confused when it came to figuring out the high road when it came to fatherhood.
The first model for dads I remember were reruns of “Father Knows Best.” Robert Young. Dads work all day in a suit. They dispense justice and homilies when they return and after their pearl-wearing wives hang up their hats. They never get down off their God-like pedestals and he just didn’t want to get involved.
Bud: “You don’t want me learning it’s OK to be wasteful do you?”
Dad: “Certainly not, but they’re waiting for me at the country club!”
Then there was the “Andy Griffith Show” where dads are always calm and collected. They were endlessly patient and seemed to have folksy tales appropriate to thorny problems just falling out of their pockets.
Andy: “Let me tell you a little story Opie. Once a loooooong time ago there was a little feller who didn’t ever brush his teeth. He used to just wet the brush and he thought it was a hoot. He was always smiling and smiling about it. Then one day he stopped smiling. N’fact, he never smiled again.”
Opie: “Why’s that Paw?
Andy: “Cuz he was ashamed. He was ashamed that he had no teeth left.”
Opie: “I guess I’ll just go and brush my teeth again.”
Dads didn’t wear ties, but they did wear a uniform and just oozed wisdom and unflappable authority.
But then as the world moved into the 70’s and TV from black and white to color, dads changed.
In the “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” dads had hippy friends and wore un-tucked shirts. They spent tons of time romping with their son or walking along beaches talking about life, saying “I love you.” And get this: they didn’t know all the answers!
Eddie: “Then what are we going to do about that?”
Father: “Eddie, you just put your small thumb on a very big problem….”
End result: confusion. Are dads supposed to be benign dictators or best friends? Sure I had my own dad and he was great, but he didn’t have a TV show, so I didn’t pay attention.
I wish I had because in the end, I didn’t have him that long. He died when I was still really a kid. When I got around to having kids, he wasn’t around to consult. Added to that, I became a step-dad and a divorced dad, so I had no playbook to draw from either from TV or real life.
Sure, there were plenty of people telling me how it should be done. Books, experts, self-help magazine articles. Do this, don’t do that….blah, blah, blah.
After 20 seasons of starring in my own dad show, I’ve learned there are only a few rules any dad should follow. Three in fact.
One: Be yourself. You want to be strict and no nonsense? Do it. Want to go radical egalitarian and communal? Do it. But Rule Two: Be consistent in your style. And that goes right to Rule Three: Be there.
Remember, you’re not carving and shaping every aspect of the person your child becomes. You’re roughing out the outline in broad, basic strokes. And more importantly- building a solid pedestal for the final sculpture.
Forget gender lines or cultural lines or the latest parenting fad. Love knows no lines and love is what dad ultimately means.
Oh. Maybe you shouldn’t let your kids watch too many TV sitcoms. Trust me.