On Fatherhood and Foreign Policy

parentingI have two children at home, a boy and a girl.  They’re good kids. Thankfully they’ve grown past the baby state of diapers, bottles, and hand-holding.  They’ve entered the more independent state of elementary and middle school, though that doesn’t mean parenting gets easier.   The challenges simply change.  Once we said things in our house like “Don’t put Matchbox cars in the toilet anymore.”  Now we says things like “All electronic devices must be put away at the dinner table.”
Fatherhood isn’t easy.  Any father will tell you that.  Sadly, many fathers simply give up and let the kids run wild or abandon their families.  If there is a crisis in America, it isn’t financial or budgetary.  It’s a lack of good fathers.   None of us are naturally equipped to be good fathers.  It’s something you have to learn, either from your own father, from books, or from classes.  Most of us just learn from experience.
Now that I’ve been a father for over a decade, some of the lessons I’ve learned might be useful to those struggling with crises of their own – whether of the minor domestic kind, or perhaps even the larger international variety.  Here are four common mistakes to avoid:                       

1) Drawing a Line in the Sand – This is one of the most common mistakes that young fathers make.  “If you touch your sister again, you’ll get it!”  Setting a definitive threshold is a big mistake.  By creating a red line that “must not be crossed” you have basically given tacit permission to do everything and anything below the red line.  There’s not a boy in the world who hasn’t been told not to touch his sister, only to hold his finger out a half-inch from the intended victim and then maintain “I’m not touching you.  I’m not touching you.”  If you make a public statement that “if you do Z, you will be punished,” you have conceded that actions X or Y can be conducted with impunity.  A “red line” concedes too much to the antagonist.  Better to be stern but avoid specific violations of good behavior.

2) Failure to Follow Through – The worst thing you can do as a father, and we’ve all seen this, is fail to follow through with a punishment once your ill-conceived “red line” is crossed.  I once witnessed a little girl in an Italian restaurant continually throw spaghetti from her high chair to the floor.  Her exasperated mother would respond each time, “If you do that one more time, you are going to get a spanking! Do you hear me?”  This went on several more times before the parents gave up, boxed their meal,  and left.  Even very small children learn quickly which parent is serious and which parent is bluffing.  The little girl knew there would be no spanking because there never had been a spanking when previous threats were violated.  If you’ve made the mistake of drawing a red line, you’ll have to respond when it’s crossed.  You should respond immediately.    If you don’t, you’ve lost all credibility.  If you wait too long to respond, the punishment is often perceived as unwarranted or unjust.

3) Indecisiveness – Kids smell indecision like sharks smell blood.  When there is conflict or controversy in the house, any outward and visible sign of internal conflict is seized upon as an opportunity for the kids to strengthen their position.  A classic example is a preteen girl (no particular daughter in mind here) who wants to wear something her father considers inappropriate for a girl her age.  A quick, decisive ruling on the outfit may provoke tears and pleading, but the answer is immediate, clear, and firm. Plodding, the child will return to her room and strip off the Lolita outfit.  A less experienced father might say “I don’t know.  Let me consult with your mother.”  That moment of hesitation comes across as doubt, maybe even lack of conviction.  The girl will immediately seize upon the opportunity to adjust her wardrobe to a less risky look, plead her case to her mother, and try to play each parent off the other.  That time of indecision will cost you greatly.  It becomes an opportunity for negotiation, redeployment, and manipulation.  In the end, even if you get what you want, you lose influence because those who violate acceptable norms of behavior know your word alone isn’t final.

4) Hypocrisy - We were all little once. Nothing smacks more of injustice in the kid world than hypocrisy.  You can’t tell your kids to avoid fried chicken only to have them catch you eating spicy Popeye’s strips one afternoon in your car when you pick them up from school.  (Not that that has happened to me before.) When you preach one thing, then do another, the kids will see you as a liar.  There is no other way to parse it. Once you violate your own policy, they’ll never forget it.   The inconsistency between your words and actions will bewilder them.  They’ll be mad and feel betrayed.

Fatherhood isn’t easy.  Doing the right thing can be hard.  It’s easier to be the “popular” Dad who wants to be liked by everybody. It’s easier to equivocate on tough decisions.  It’s even easier to put the responsibility on somebody else.  Living up to the charge requires us fathers to take a stand for what we believe is right.  It can be hard to do.  But that’s our charge –  to preserve, protect, and defend the  people who depend on us.

You’ve done well with your girls.  It’s time you take your office seriously as well.

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