Five Things My Daughter Has Taught Me About Fatherhood

Hide and seekOur little girl is about to turn five years old. It is true, what they say about the brevity of childhood. I think that children bring an acute awareness of life’s transience. Before our energetic and precocious daughter came into our lives, each day was very much like the next. There were few extraordinary events to mark the passage of time.

Now each day shows us how quickly things change, and how consistently life asks us to surrender precious things. Gone are the days when I could spoon-feed her or cause fits of laughter simply by tossing her in the air.

Well, that’s not true. She still laughs when I toss her around, but she has grown and it’s harder than it used to be. I hope she doesn’t expect that when she’s fifteen.

Five years is a milestone. School is in full swing, she folds her own clothes, and she’s halfway to the double digits. It’s a good time to take inventory of the lessons she has taught me. She has helped me with practical matters like hide-and-seek strategy (see photo at right), and she has set forth a number of useful lessons on important topics like these…

  • Relationships: “I’m leaving you! But only if you come with me.”
  • Existence: “Do you know what’s really not fun? Being a human. I wish I was an oviraptor.”
  • Playing a trumpet: “You just put your lips in it, push all kinds of buttons, and you’re doing it!”
  • Biology: “My right hand is called Mr. Grabby and my left hand is called Mr. Holdy.”
  • The little joys in life: “A playground? Next to a lake!? WOW!”

I can’t compete with wisdom like that, but I can share what I’ve learned along the way. In no particular order, here are five lessons my daughter has taught me about fatherhood:

1: Fatigue Is Hard on Bodies, Minds, and Relationships
We are an active family, and it’s tempting to make sleep a low priority. We try to ensure that our daughter gets sufficient rest. Really, we do. But time sometimes escapes us. When fatigue builds up over the course of a few days, kidlets become short-tempered, unfocused, unhappy, and generally unpleasant to be around. Maybe this is Mother Nature’s way of persuading parents to put the kid to bed already.

Fathers also need sufficient sleep. Fatigued dads become short-tempered, unfocused, unhappy, and generally unpleasant to be around. Mother Nature is certainly consistent.

It’s probably an obvious point, but fatigue is hard on bodies, minds, relationships. Unfortunately, by it’s very nature, fatigue dulls the wits and blinds us to its effects. It’s an insidious foe. Despite my years of fancy book learnin’, keeping it at bay still takes conscious effort.

2: Distraction Is a Sublime Art
While I have made plenty of mistakes, one thing I have done well is to capitalize on the mystical, magical, fabulously fantastical powers of distraction. Wielded effectively and sparingly, this tool can avert conflict and increase productivity. (Every dad is part CEO.) Let’s look at an example, starting with the wrong way to handle a common situation:

Daughter: “I don’t want to brush my teeth tonight.”
Father: “I know, but you have to do it anyway.”
Daughter: “But we always, always, always brush teeth. I don’t want to!”
Father: “I didn’t ask if you wanted to. Now march into that bathroom, young lady!”
Daughter:  (Tears forming) “But I don’t want to!”

…And so on. Dad has stepped into a trap. Now here’s the same situation with the magic of distraction:

Daughter: “I don’t want to brush my teeth tonight.”
Father: “I know. Hey, remember that time I was brushing my teeth and drooled toothpaste on the front of my shirt?”
Daughter: “YEAH! Ha ha ha!”
Father: “I looked like a crazy dog!” (Starts walking toward the bathroom.)
Daughter: “HA HA! You looked like a wackadoo crazy dog!” (Following him into the bathroom.)

If all goes to plan, she will gladly brush her her teeth while focusing on something more pleasant. The downside to this strategy is that she will one day use it on me:

Daughter: “Dad, it’s time to get your new dentures.”
Old dad: “Why? I’ve had this set for 15 year and I ain’t starved yet!”
Daughter: “Hey dad, remember my first ride on a roller coaster?” (Starts walking toward the car.)
Old dad: “Yeah, heh heh. You didn’t know which way was up afterward.” (Following her to the car.) 

3: How to Dampen Electronic Speakers on Plastic Toys
Here’s a practical tip that every father should know: a bit of sticky tape will significantly dampen the loud, tinny, electronic speakers found on many plastic toys. You can cover the speaker holes partially or entirely to control the volume. If that fails, your local thrift store will gladly take the toy off your hands in order to preserve your sanity. Everybody is happier when daddy isn’t feeling demented because his ears are bleeding.

4: Have a Plan, and Be a United Front
Every now and then, our little princess decides to test-drive her bad manners for a day or two. For no apparent reason, she becomes surly, snappish, and demanding. These phases are perfectly normal.

Her mother and I respond to impudence simply by giving her a brief time-out, followed by the opportunity to repackage her message into a less turd-like presentation. We hope to teach her that people won’t associate with her if she acts like a jerk. We don’t battle with her or vie for dominance, we simply refuse to participate in discourtesy.

The result? People routinely compliment her etiquette. Every kid loves compliments, and she is learning how to get what she needs without alienating people.

I think this works because her mother and I are consistent. For the most part, our daughter gets the same responses from each of us because we routinely confer on the best way to respond to her. (She hates that we do that, and has even asked us to stop. Sorry, Kiddo.)

Sometimes her mother and I fail to communicate and we find ourselves with different goals – but only until we recognize the problem and realign ourselves. I can see how parents end up battling each other rather than focusing on the mutual task of raising a civilized human being. Remember, your spouse or partner is not your opponent. The child is your opponent.

(Kidding.) (Mostly.)

5: Give Away Responsibility
As an overly protective father, it is tempting to micromanage my daughter’s behavior. Of course, that’s about as unproductive as struggling against quicksand. The more I try to control her, the more she will resist. If I’m not careful, she will consider me her avowed enemy before she’s sixteen.

I grasp this point academically, but still I must work to restrain myself. For example, she started kindergarten this year, and several weeks into the school year I noticed a destructive pattern. She and I were battling each morning about punctuality. The harder I tried to get her out the door on time, the slower she would go. It was becoming a contest of wills. That is not the kind of relationship I want with my daughter.

My brain eventually began to function correctly on the matter. I realized that I was concerned about her punctuality, and she was not. That’s entirely backward. What do I care if she’s late? I’m not the one who will pay the price for her tardiness or reap the rewards of timeliness. I was making both of us crazy and depriving her of consequences that she needs to experience in order to learn about the world.

So I stopped fighting the battle. We explained to her the benefits of time management and taught her how to be mindful of the clock. She would be responsible for getting out the door on time.

It’s no surprise that our good kid rose to the occasion. With only two exceptions, she has been on time. She paid a small price for her tardiness, and reaped a large reward for punctuality. She’s now a little more independent, and our mornings are much more pleasant.

I think that one of the tasks of parenting is helping children make mistakes at the right time. Kindergarten is the perfect place to learn about time management. Mistakes are cheap at her age. She cannot get fired or expelled. For now, the only cost of tardiness is a few minutes subtracted from recess.

My task is more difficult than hers. I need to relinquish control at the right time and place. It might be easier to simply lord over her every move, but that’s not my job.

Love Means Letting Go… But Not Yet
One day, out of the blue, our little angel channeled Lauren Bacall. “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and PHPHPHPTTT!

It’s beautiful that children have no idea how much they don’t know about the world, yet they are never without an explanation for things. For instance, did you know that cavity-causing germs have a name? According to our daughter, it’s Bob Troubleman.

Here’s another of her lessons: “It’s not so smart to dye your hair green, but if you dye up your whole self green you could hide in the grass to escape from predators like tyrannosaurus rex.”

It’s sad to think of her outgrowing such innocence and whimsy. I mourned the day she started saying “yellow” instead of “laddow.” But with each passing stage comes something new and equally exciting – provided I’m willing to relinquish control and grow along with her. Hopefully, I’ll learn a few more things in the next five years.

For now, I still get to be her protective father, and I’ll try to be smart about it. Luckily, some things are no-brainers, like the time I was using the circular saw and she announced with an eager smile, “my turn!”

Not just yet, Sweetheart.