He didn’t tell me how to live;
he lived, and let me watch him do it.
-Clarence Budington Kelland
Some were lessons my father taught overtly; some he taught by example; and some were driven home by their absence. But no one in this world shaped me more than my father. I miss him very much today.
1. Eating together, at home, is important.
My dad didn’t cook. When my mom was in the hospital the morning after giving birth to my brother, my dad scrambled an egg for me before my great-aunt arrived to assume domestic duties in my mother’s absence. This was the only time I ever saw my father cook anything.
However, we ate together every. fricking. night. Fast food was a big deal, a super-special treat, but my dad avoided those fast-food trips like the plague. It may have been a budget thing, I don’t know, but it definitely colored my perception of the Golden Arches and its ilk (although in retrospect he may have had a soft spot for Arby’s and Taco Bell).
Interestingly, a new study suggests that Dad’s eating choices have more influence than Mom’s when it comes to fighting childhood obesity. And more than a decade of research by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has consistently found that the more often kids eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.
2. Talk, talk, talk to your kids.
After eating our homecooked meals, we would talk; about what I was learning in school, about our days, about what was happening in the world, anything and everything. These marathon talks could, and often did, run as long as two or three hours.
“And I really think it was these times of talking that gave me a sense of who I was. I was given the time and space and a willingly captive audience; I was free to give voice to my opinions. I was also fully expected to debate them and defend them. Often I would reframe them.
I developed a fairly evolved sense of ethics and morality. I learned to see things from multiple viewpoints. I learned to stand behind my opinions...
Our children grow and change so quickly, and I make a point of getting to know who they are today. I want to meet every bit of them, every beautiful nuance and aspect of their personalities.
I want to help shape them, but I don’t want to do the shaping. They are their own people. Mostly I want to be a safe place, a wall that they can bounce their ideas and hopes and thoughts off of. I want to help them refine who they are each day as they change and grow, and I want them to hear their own thoughts take shape. I think this is so important and neglected.
I want them to learn how to think, to think on their feet, to defend, to see the value in their own original thoughts and opinions. I want them to know that I’m listening.”
I wrote that, in 2008, along with more about the importance of the family dinner.
Talk, talk, talk to your kids. Start when they are young, so they will continue to talk to you when they are not so young.
3. Self-Reliance. Civil Disobedience. A Perfect Day for Bananafish.
I grew up in a house where the Holy Trinity were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and J.D. Salinger; Rilke, Lao-Tzu (Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation), and the bard Bob Dylan were the angels that we heard on high. I also knew my Bible, my gnostic gospels, my Koran, my sayings of Confucius, my Native American tales, my Greek mythology. I grew up thinking everything was holy and a mysterious, complex miracle, that prayer is important because it shapes the pray-er, and I learned to respect and question everything. I also learned to love to read, to read critically, to read again and again, and when I miss my dad I take out one of his dog-eared copies of those books.
Dads, read to your kids, and let them see what you are reading. Only 3% of fathers now find the time to read to the kids compared to 89% of moms. It’s important in all kinds of academic ways, but sharing literature (and music) with your kids forms an emotional and intellectual bond that, for me, lasted beyond my father’s death. It’s how I remember what he was all about. Heck, it’s how I learned what he was all about in the first place. Share your passions and your beliefs and your lifeviews in a way that is tangible and readily accessible when you are not, when your child needs guidance or comfort. Share your favorite books, even if it’s just Where the Wild Things Are. It counts. More than you know.
4. Get in the picture.
Literally. My dad was the photographer, as I am now, and every photo I have of him and me together is in this post. Relinquish the camera every once in a while. Don’t make the “please don’t take my picture” face. One day, those photos will be what is left of you.
5. Get outside, get active.
Dad play is different than Mom play; dads tend to empower kids to be more physical and take more risks, and also model how to restrain themselves around those that are younger and less strong.
My dad forced TONS of outdoor active time on us by refusing to own a car. We walked everywhere, and as a result we kids were fit with fab metabolisms, we were really comfortable in the outdoors, we had a decent sense of direction (I lose this while driving), and we were street-savvy. All that time walking also lended itself to many a deep conversation. I hope to pass along some of these benefits to my kids… without giving up my car 🙂
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.
— Rachel Carson
6. Cheap is an illusion.
My dad was frugal to a fault, but when he bought things he purchased quality items that would last. And one of the more overt lessons he drove into my skull was that nothing is really cheap. One year I bought him a brown wicker duck from a dollar store. And, turning it slowly from side to side on the table, he said to me: “Someone grew the plant for the wicker. Someone harvested it. Someone hand wove the fibers into this shape. Someone painted it. Someone packed it into a box, put it on a plane, unpacked it, placed it on a shelf. Someone paid for the fuel for transport and the rent in the store. How can they afford to sell it for a dollar?” The answer is: cutting corners with wages. No safety regulations. Using cheap, possibly toxic, paint.
It’s just one of example of many, but this was the story that made it click in my mind: that the purchases we make can support fair practices and our own ethics, or they can perpetuate unfair, hazardous practices at the expense of our morals. That every dollar we spend is a political act.
7. It’s OK to look stupid.
At my dad’s office building, there was a fountain in front. Across the street, there was a park. Every spring, the proud geese mommas and poppas would parade their goslings, single file, across 6 lanes of fast-moving traffic, from the park to the fountain. And my dad was that guy, who stood in the middle of the road and stopped cars so goose families could cross safely. My kids would die if I did such a thing, but I would do it anyway. Because my dad taught me that just because no one else will do it, is no excuse not to do it yourself. Help whoever needs your help. Do whatever you can.
8. A job is not your work.
From a very early age my dad was encouraging me to follow my interests… and monetize them. We were always cooking up harebrained ways to start a business, talking out the costs vs profits, market saturation, stuff like that. Then, he put his money where his mouth was, by buying a 2nd low-cost house, renting it out so it paid for its own mortgage, so that my brother and I would have a place to live after college. So that we wouldn’t have to worry about keeping a job just to keep a roof over our head. So we could look for and follow our true work without the emphasis on a paycheck.
Unfortunately, with 3 kids before the age of 30, I kind of screwed all that up. But I learned the lesson, and again, I am trying to pass it along to my children. Success is living a satisfied and fulfilling life. It’s not about your house, your paycheck, your belongings. If anything, that stuff just gets in the way.
My dad had a truly crappy childhood and early adulthood. After his father died at Iwo Jima, his mother married a series of abusive alcoholic losers. He escaped at age 18; it’s a bad situation when escape = enlisting in the military and going to war in Vietnam. While he was gone, his mother sold all his belongings and rented out his room. He literally returned to nothing. He tried, again and again, to give his mother a chance to reconcile, but she was very much just an awful person. And yet, after all she had done, after all she had said (to him, to me, to my mother), when she was diagnosed with brain cancer he brought her to our house to live out her last few months. And when my cousin cleaned out the joint bank account he held with her, leaving the bills and the funeral costs to my father… well, he forgave him too, and never badmouthed him in my presence.
Forgiveness doesn’t come so easily to me— does it for anyone?— but I try. And I continue to try, because that is what he would have wanted. Unconditional love and forgiveness is what is beautiful and divine about the human condition.
10. Your children hear what you don’t say.
Things my father never said to me:
- You are beautiful.
- I am proud of you.
- I love you.
Once some kids were teasing me at school about being ugly. Mind, I went to an Italian school, in the heart of Little Italy, I was the only Asian in our class, my mother was weird, I was cripplingly shy and I looked different. I was an obvious target. My dad said, “You’re not ugly. You’ll never be a beauty queen, but…”
I don’t know what he said after that. I understand that he was worried about my vanity, that he was doing his best to make me feel better, but decades later I still point to this as the most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to me, ever. And as a result I have never, ever believed anyone who said I was pretty.
I’m not fishing for pity here, don’t misunderstand me, I know my strengths. But I want dads to know that your daughters need to hear that you think they are beautiful. And smart. And that you are proud of them. And that you love them. Because if they don’t hear it from you, they will never believe it coming from anyone else.
There’s more, of course, but I need to stop somewhere.
My dad would be so pleased about me blogging, fulfilling my need to get my voice out into the world. I almost feel like all that reading and talking was preparation for this time and space. I hope that something comes of it, someday. That perhaps my words can serve as an inspiration as Thoreau and Emerson and Dylan did for us.
I think that would make him proud.
I know we’re all thinking of our dads today, particularly those of us who no longer have dads here to accept our hugs, our gifts, our words of appreciation.
What important lessons did your dad pass down to you?