Carl and I are lucky to have amazing Dads who were always there for us, provided for our needs, and gave us great childhoods full of love, fun, and wise guidance. On Mother’s Day I wrote about a few things my Mom did for her kids – things beyond the normal feeding/clothing/caring parental responsibilities that were difficult for her or for us, but made big differences in my childhood and paid big dividends in my adult life. Tonight it’s Dad’s turn. These items are just a tiny sampling of the many differences Dad made (and still makes!) in his kids’ lives. And, of course, Mom was involved in each of these as well, but this is the “Dad’s input” side of things. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
The Wilderness – Dad loves the wilderness. At 16 he backpacked through the Rocky Mountains alone. He spent his college summers leading long-distance backpacking, canoeing, and climbing trips. From the time we were tiny, he and Mom took us out in the woods hiking, camping, fishing, swimming, and exploring. We hiked on free weekend afternoons, camped through Canada along the northern shores of the Great Lakes, paddled and portaged our way deep into the Boundary Waters, drove remote two-tracks through national forests in Wyoming, spent long days on horseback in the North Dakota badlands, hiked hot southwestern deserts, dodged hungry black bears in the North Carolina Smokies, and flailed against gale-force winds on New England mountains. Especially when we were younger, plane fares and “fancy” vacations were generally out of the budget. In retrospect, spending your two weeks’ annual leave driving long distances, hauling gear through the rain, and sleeping in a tent with three small dirty children may not be the most relaxing holiday, However, that time in the woods and the deep love we each developed for our country’s wild spaces as a result was one of the biggest gifts my parents gave their kids. I first visited Europe at twenty, but by eighteen we’d explored the forests, fields, mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys, oceans, and deserts of about 35 of the 50 states. I’ve since added another six or so with my husband, not counting hikes in several other countries and three more continents. Every time I lace up my boots, pitch a tent, dodge a moose, or launch a canoe I remember family time in state parks, national forests, lumber land, national parks, and other wilderness areas. I regularly use the skills my Dad first demonstrated when we could barely walk: building fires, navigating with a map and compass, dealing with dangerous animals, identifying plants (whether poisonous or the all-important “lumberjack’s T.P.”), reading river rapids, loading a pack, portaging canoes, wilderness first aid, and, most importantly, simply appreciating and enjoying the beauty around us. Love for, and comfort in, the wilderness is an irreplaceable gift that yields fresh dividends every year.
Demanding (and rewarding) Maturity – Dad demanded instant obedience, and respect for Mom, him, and all others around us. It would’ve been easier to let poor behaviour slide with a shrug and a “teenagers will be teenagers” comment. Instead, he and Mom instituted the rule that there would be no such thing as “teens” in their home (“teenager” being a relatively new cultural invention anyhow). There were children, and there were young adults. They made it clear that a simple increase in age did not entitle us to any new privileges or rights, and it was absolutely no excuse for bad attitudes, disrespectful behaviour, or shirked responsibility. Instead, only demonstrating mature, responsible behaviour indicated we were ready to handle adult privileges with responsibility. A lack of responsible behaviour meant we still needed to be treated like a child, and could not be trusted with adult privileges. Case in point? Getting our learner’s permit at 15 and our license at 16 was not a given. Just when I expected to start Driver’s Ed, Dad informed me that my back-talk and current spate of eye-rolling disrespect indicated I was not yet ready to drive. If I couldn’t handle unloading the dishwasher without a reminder and couldn’t take an order without turning it into a debate, why on earth would they trust me with the responsibility of a several ton vehicle? Guess what? In a (not particularly surprising) turn of events, it turned out my “normal teenage behaviour” wasn’t inevitable or uncontrollable (sorry, child psychologists). As soon as a real consequence hit, I shaped up and began acting with the adult respect I’d been capable of all along. I seethed as I waited an extra year for my license, but am very grateful now. It wasn’t fun or relaxing for Dad to constantly enforce the standards (and certainly having to drive your kid everywhere for an extra year was an inconvenience), but not taking the easy way out made life much more pleasant for him, Mom, and all of us in the long run. Every now and then after a several month streak of reformed behaviour we’d break out into a fresh fit of attitude. Crackdown commenced. Mouthy teenagers butted up against an immovable brick wall, and continued charging at it until they collapsed in an exhausted heap. Mouthy teenagers gave in and acted like adults again. It paid off in a much happier family then, and it pays off in my job and friendships today.
Cool Stuff – Family relations, warmth, love, and trust are important in keeping your teenagers connected, but you know what else helps? Doing cooler things as a family than your kids could be doing with their friends. Dad knew that kids and young adults want to act like adults, and desperately want to be seen and treated like adults. Being underestimated is insulting. If all someone thinks you’re capable of is homework and making your bed, why prove them wrong? When, instead, we got chances to try new challenges, help others by doing adult tasks, and visibly/tangibly contribute to the family I felt much cooler than the kids hanging out at the mall. As a family Dad (and Mom) constantly had us roofing someone’s house, flooring a porch, painting for a widow, volunteering on political campaigns, growing our own food, fgb our own home, or building shelving. He helped us start our own businesses. Nothing gives you bragging points at youth group like your Dad letting you run the chain saw while cutting firewood for the winter. Who wants to play shoot-em-up video games at your friends all afternoon when your Dad lets you shoot his AR-15, gives you your own rifle, and enrolls you in the Junior Marksmanship training program? It takes trust to let your kids try big things, and sometimes it takes a shove to make them get over their own fear, but few things made me prouder (or made me want to grow more) than when my parents let me tackle big responsibilities and out-of-the ordinary opportunities.