The things I know will make me a better dad
Here’s how kids spell love —
T I M E
A wanky layout trick I know, but necessary to focus your attention on that, terribly easy-to-skim-through, word. Stepping back when you’re in the trenches of the first few years, or the frantic rush of the years that follow is bloody hard. But it’s so important parents do, as one granddad I interviewed said.
There’s a last time they will hold your hand.
A last time they will sit on your lap.
If we don’t consciously pay attention to the time we spend with our little ones, there’s a big danger we’ll miss it.
We’re all shit-busy, and have bigger eyes than our bellies when it comes to our achievements in life. Some of us live or work away from our families, seeing them once a week or month. Some of us are there all the time but also have the mountain of chores and life admin to do. Some of us work bloody hard and rush home to arrive sweaty in the hope of spending a few minutes with them for fear of becoming weekend mums and dads. Or we’re a little bit of all three. How much time we can create depends on your situation, but what you do with that time is where it counts. Quality, not quantity if you will.
The irony is though, it’s often us that gets in the way of spending quality time with our kids. When I think about the quality of time I spend, there are three things that keep getting in the way for me.
Putting that flipping phone away
Sometimes I catch myself looking at it without consciously thinking I want to. When I engage my brain I can only find the odd rare occasion where there’s a real need to prioritise the damn thing over my darling little ones. There’s such observant little creatures, children. With attention being a signal of importance, checking a phone when you’re with them just says ‘this little device and the things on it are more important than you’. Or if I’m being really harsh on myself it’s more like ‘you’re dependent on me for the love, attention, knowledge, food etc you need to grow into an adult. But I’m dependent on the attention of other people to make me feel good, and I take priority’. That last one normally buts a very firm lid on the phone for a while.
One dad I interviewed, who saw his kids a few times a month for two years, while he built his business (all pre-agreed with his wife, and a decision he says he will never know if it was the right one or not) took them swimming then, because you can’t check your phone at the pool.
Putting that phone away is something I’m working on every day.
Not as much needless nagging and shouting
Every now and then I ask my kids what I could do more and less of to be a better dad. Stop nagging has been number one for a while. It’s the perennial thorn in my side because I am impatient and have high expectations of myself. That thorn in my side has made me one in theirs at times. I transfer my impatience and high expectations onto them because in the moment I just don’t think.
How can I expect a five-year-old to get dressed as fast as someone who’s had seven lifetimes’ more practice? It took me two decades to figure out that when I’m hungry I get hangry. In a few short years, they’ve learnt how to walk, talk, read, write, draw, climb, run, negotiate. How can I expect them to have cracked hanger too?
Oh, the shouting. I hate myself when I do it. Sometimes it’s necessary, but most of the time it’s not.
Most of the time it’s the thoughtless way to get their attention because I’m too tired, frustrated or rushed to approach getting their attention any other way. But I know that when I shout, I’m just teaching them to raise their voices when they get frustrated. I don’t want them to be that kind of adult who has to learn self-control later in life. I want them to learn that young, and I know that starts with how I behave.
This one’s a lifelong battle, but it’s one I’m facing up to every day.
How can I expect a five-year-old to get dressed as fast as someone who’s had seven lifetimes’ more practice?
Choosing to play
Of all the joys of parenting, playing is right up there. Top three for me, alongside watching them achieve something you didn’t know they could do, and moments of loving connection that you only get with your children.
So if it’s top three, why do so few parents do it? At the park, the playground, the softplay, all these sedentary adults sitting around on their screens or chatting. I know screens are a gateway to work and other connections, and making friends with parents is important, but always putting them ahead of play isn’t.
It’s in play that the magic happens, where the best connections happen and, to be honest, where most of their time is spent, the lucky buggers. Putting aside the tiredness, partaking in monotonously repetitive play with a smile on your face, is hard. It takes the energy out of you. But that’s a lowly price to pay for experiences that give you both so much if you choose to notice them.
The building of the relationship, the flights of fantasy, the windows into their personality and the creaking open of old parts of yours.
All so valuable, but all demand we try a little harder.
From all the parents I’ve talked to and books I’ve read, it seems that at 11, 12 and 13, a child’s worlds will start to gravitate more around towards their peers and away from their parents. Time’s ticking away and I’m being selfish about it. I didn’t sacrifice so much in having kids to not make the most of the time we have together.
I’m not missing out on making those memories because I can’t get my own shit together.
When I realise they no longer hold my hand or sit on my lap, I want to know I made the most of the time when they did.