By Mike Aquilina
I’m often jealous of my wife. She’s wise in a way I’m not. Her instincts for parenting are like Derek Jeter’s instincts at shortstop. She can diaper a baby with one hand while tying a toddler’s shoe with the other, all the while consoling a teenager in the midst of an emotional crisis. And she never seems to lose eye contact with any of them. You figure it out. I, on the other hand, am incapable of multitasking. I have the one-track mind and tunnel vision that are standard equipment in a certain type of male. When I’m driving, I want to arrive, not enjoy the scenery. When there’s a problem, I look for the quickest fix possible. (There are good reasons why duct tape has become the most recognizable symbol of maleness.)
But I’m not here to beat up on myself, or betray my fellow males. All those things I mentioned – including the duct tape – serve the family well, most of the time. But, like all things human, they have been knocked out of whack by the sin of Adam, that first imperfect dad. And it’s our job to restore them to order. I can’t say that I’ve returned my fatherly skills to their created perfection. But I had the rare blessing of growing up under a true hall-of-fame father – a master of his game – a dad whom other dads sought out for advice. I am the youngest of his seven children, so I got to see him when his game was at its most refined. Pop died in December 2002, just a few months before my sixth child was born. So I can no longer call him on the phone to ask his advice. But I have a rich store of memory to draw from. So I find myself learning this business of fathering as I roll tape in my mind – as I watch the game films. Even after all these years, I’m still learning from Pop.
Learned Lessons in Fatherhood
Lesson Number 1: Love your wife, openly and unstintingly.
No one who knew my parents ever doubted or questioned whether my dad loved his wife. You could tell by the way he looked at her and spoke her name. If he lived with any persistent temptation to sin, it must have been idolatry. In matters of preference or taste, he always deferred to mom. Over years of marriage he had formed a neat coincidence of thought, word and deed: what pleased him most was whatever brought her the greatest pleasure. He was happiest when he saw her happy. Her happiness was the barometer of his own. Thus, virtue was its own reward. Even though my mother was an accomplished mind-reader (we men are easy reads), and my father was an almost silent man, he daily spoke his mind on certain subjects: my mother’s beauty and his love for her. We should all take a lesson, and speak up in matters of love.
We should also back up our words with great deeds, heroic deeds. My father’s deeds tended to be home-handiwork – projects that involved power tools. My ineptitude rules these out. But, once or twice a year, we husbands should do something outlandish: write a sonnet, build something, search out that perfect doorbell she’s been unable to locate on eBay. If you do this, your children will recognize you as the hero whenever they read the great love stories of the world. You are the knight on a quest for his lady. You are Jacob, who worked 14 years without complaint, so that he could win the heart of Rachel. You are the man. Why do I begin my parenting lessons with a marriage lesson? Because that’s where everything started for Pop. This is what I saw in his love for my mom: When we love our wives, we’re teaching our sons how to be husbands. We’re showing our daughters the kind of men we want them to marry.
Lesson Number 2: Make contact.
When your children are small, hold them close and hold them often. Hug them, give them piggyback rides, rough-house according to their preference. God wired our bodies to find fulfillment in loving, physical expressions. It’s no secret, for example, that the chemical oxytocin, released during breast-feeding, helps to relax a new mother. Recent research at Harvard Medical School indicates that close contact with children does something similar for men. When a man holds a baby (or even a baby doll!), his body adjusts the levels of the hormones largely responsible for aggression, over-competitiveness and such. Babies domesticate us in a powerful way. It’s the baby who takes a man and makes him a dad, and the transformation shakes him to his constituent chemistry.
This goes a long way in explaining my father’s serenity. I don’t think he ever passed up a chance to hold a baby or a small child. Some of my earliest memories are of pretending I was asleep at the end of a long car ride, so that Pop would carry me into the house. I’m sure he knew I was pretending. I’m sure he didn’t mind in the least. Once, when he was in his late seventies, he was pacing the floor with my newborn daughter in his arms. She had been asleep for quite some time, but he didn’t put her down. In one of his rare philosophical moments, he told me then that he believed there was a “silent language of love” that passed between adults and children. We didn’t need to speak out loud, and they didn’t need to learn our expressions. That’s the language we dads must learn to speak with our bodies.
Lesson Number 3: Stop. Look. Listen.
We men are lousy multitaskers. My wife can accomplish great feats of baking and accounting, all the while making her children feel loved. We men can’t do this, and my father knew it instinctively. So he never talked to me with one eye on the TV. We, too, need to learn to stop what we’re doing, disengage from our tasks, make eye contact, and then truly listen. Since I work from home, this is a constant struggle for me. The only sure cure I’ve found is …
Lesson Number 4: Cultivate a devotion to the guardian angels.
These are powerful spiritual beings who want you to succeed at parenting. Everybody has one (see Ps 34:7, Mt 18:10, Ac 12:15). Your kids do, and so do you. When you’re beginning to lose your patience, ask your guardian angel to help you. If the situation keeps getting worse, call on your kids’ guardian angels. In fact, the system works best if you greet each child’s angel (silently, in your heart) each time the kid strolls into your presence.
Lesson Number 5: Be grateful.
If kids today don’t appreciate anything, it’s because their parents don’t. Model gratitude by thanking your children often, for what they do and for what they are. Catch them doing good things. If we don’t learn to be grateful, we’ll forget that we’re always on the receiving end of God’s giving. And we’ll soon slide into habits of resentment. Gratitude is the simple road to heaven because it makes life heavenly on earth.
Lesson Number 6: Choose battles. Choose few.
As I said before, my father was an almost silent man. He held his rages for very rare occasions. My nephew still remembers how my dad shocked him out of adolescent rebellion. Pop used strong words with him, and even raised his voice a little. If Pop had been a man given to tirades, another furious rage would have been meaningless. But his few, well-chosen words were all it took to make a teenager raise the white flag.
Another example: when my sisters were in college, they were exposed to the latest theories on every subject under the sun, and they’d sometimes come home and “correct” my father’s mistaken notions. Pop didn’t argue with them. Instead, he praised them for studying so hard and listening in class. Then he’d go right on living as he had lived till then, and as his children would come around to live, once the class was over and the latest theories passed into oblivion.
Lesson Number 7: Give it all you got.
When you’re old, you won’t regret the times you neglected your hobbies. You won’t wish you had logged more hours at work. You won’t care what TV shows you missed. You will, however, wish you had spent more time with your kids. My father worked long, very hard hours for a coal company. When he came home, he was exhausted. I’ll bet he wanted nothing more than to collapse beneath the newspaper. But he didn’t. He collapsed beneath the kids. My mom says — and I remember this — that, coming home, he would wrestle with me on the floor, let me crawl on him, pounce on him … let me live the dream of any child who’s read Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. Eventually, he’d drift off to sleep, while my game went on with him as a prop.
All that my father had, he gave to his children – he gave to me – until there was nothing left. And, now that he’s gone, his memory is worth more to me than the largest mansion or trust fund. I will do well if I pass on what I have received.
For more great parenting tips for raising (almost) perfect kids, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.