“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
The above quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, though there is some doubt as to whether he actually said it. Nevertheless, it’s a fun quote and worth sharing as we approach Father’s Day on Sunday. I won’t presume to be able to improve on something Mark Twain may have said, but I will offer some memories of my dad and some thoughts on being a father.
Like any father, my dad had strengths and weaknesses. One strength was his work ethic. Throughout recorded history being a father has meant providing for your family. Traditionally, the father’s primary job was to put food on the table. That remains true today. Although women may now have their own careers and may even be the breadwinners while the father stays at home, society does not expect women to play that role. For women it is an option, but for men it is a duty. (I’m ignoring the plight of single mothers receiving no support from the fathers of their children).
A boy is always observing his father and through this process he learns how to be a father. Sometimes the boy decides to emulate his father in certain ways, but sometimes the boy realizes his father had his faults and determines to do it differently.
My dad taught me how to swim in the cold waters off Gloucester, Massachusetts. He would have me stand in about two feet of water and position himself ten yards away. “Put your head down and swim toward me,” he would say. It was only ten yards. What I did not realize was that as I was swimming he was backing up so that I was really swimming much further than ten yards. That was a pretty good trick, I think, and I used it with my own kids.
My dad was a perfectionist and didn’t offer praise easily. If I hit a double in little league baseball his response was that I could have hit a home run if I had put more power into it and used better technique. I don’t remember him praising me until I went into the Air Force at the age of twenty-five. I resolved to be more liberal in offering praise to my children.
Sometimes my dad showed wisdom. When I was eighteen I stayed out one night and drank a six-pack of Coors at a nearby park. I came home around 1:00 a.m. and, as fate would have it, that was the one night in his entire life my dad had decided to work into the wee hours of the morning. He surely smelled the beer on me and observed my strange demeanor, but he said nothing and I went to bed. I’m sure he would have taken action if he thought I’d had an alcohol problem, but I think he just saw it as part of growing up and was glad I had made it home safely.
I don’t have any words of wisdom on being dad. The best I can offer is that you should bear in mind your children are always watching you. Oh, one other thing. Shortly before he died at the age of eighty-four, my dad told me, “I wish I had changed more diapers.”