Bill Bounds has written a book on on becoming a father for the first time, Forty Weeks of Keeping Your Head Down. He talks about his experiences as a parent since then.
Five words: What makes a great dad?
It’s difficult to narrow it down to five words. Not necessarily in order of importance, I’d probably have to say; commitment, love, strength, consistency and example.
Of course, it’s easy for people to say you have to love and support your children and that’s it. Naturally, you do have to love them and love them more than anything else in the world. However, I just really don’t think it stops there. I think you have to have the strength to realize being a great dad doesn’t mean being your childrens’ best friend and be okay with them when they don’t like what you’ve said. You’re not going to be their best friend and, in truth, you shouldn’t be. You need to be strong enough to say no when it’s right to and stick with that answer regardless of how loudly they respond. You need to be consistent with messages and approaches, not only with what you’ve said before but also with their mother. You also have to be the example to them for the right way things get done, how to react to things and how to treat others.
What are your feelings about the role of the father in child development?
I think both parents have to be leaders for their children and early educators, of course. But, even though, ideally, the responsibility for raising a child with a healthy sense of right and wrong, good and bad and so on will be shared between their mothers and fathers, some things will naturally be leaning more towards the mother or the father. I think the father needs to be a moral compass for a child. We need to understand what the messages are we’re sending our children when we do the smallest things. So, we have to be very careful about the example we set so this can serve as a good foundation for our kids. I think it’s important to show both boys and girls how men should be conducting themselves in the world. They need to see how they should treat others and be treated by others.
In my case, by the way, if my kids are going to be into basketball or other sports, that pretty much all falls to me.
What is the best thing dads can do in raising children?
I’d love to say it’s showing them how to take care of themselves in any situation or giving them unconditional love and support, but of course, these things can and should be done by both parents. I figure those things go without saying.
I’d have to say the best thing a dad can do is help to give their kids a healthy sense of right and wrong. Fathers need to lead by example and be consistent. We need to focus on giving them a moral backbone. Not that this won’t be or shouldn’t be a shared responsibility with the mother, but I think children tend to look towards fathers more for how they should be acting and treating others. I don’t think children really think about it that way at the time, but how they see Daddy acting towards others whether it’s Mommy, the waiter at a restaurant or anyone else goes a very long way in helping them understand how they should be treating the world they interact with.
As for me, even though my daughter isn’t quite two yet, I’m trying so hard to show her the simplest things about right and wrong. She has to pick up her toys after she plays with them, she has to say “please” and “thank you” and she never gets rewarded for a temper tantrum. In a restaurant, if she starts raising a ruckus, I will lean in and ask her, “Do we need to go outside?” And she’ll shake her head no and calm down… sometimes. If she continues, I’ll just pick her up and take her outside until she calms down. She needs to know first that she cannot throw temper tantrums and get what she wants and that I will absolutely follow through with what I say. I’m hoping this is the start of showing her how to act, what’s appropriate and not and just how to get along with others.
I realize, of course, that I’m early into this child-rearing thing now and that it’s easy for me to say this is how I do one thing or another. However, I can honestly say that if the one thing I give my daughter is an understanding of right and wrong and the inclination to do the former over the latter, I’ll be happy with what I’ve brought to the equation.
What is the biggest parenting mistake dads can make in raising their children?
Obviously, there are plenty of extreme situations that are the exceptions to the rules about normal parents. Not going into those, I’d say the biggest mistake dads can make is trying to be their children’s best friend. I think it’s an unfortunate side effect of living in such a busy time where both parents tend to be so jammed with work that they don’t get to spend as much time with their children as they’d like. They can tend to over-compensate for this by giving their children anything they want or by not enforcing rules of the house or general rules like homework and so on. They try to make up for not being there as much as they’d like by being really nice or “cool” or whatever makes the child want to spend time with them.
People forget their job is also teaching kids how to interact with the world outside the house. I have a friend that’s a 2nd grade teacher. He tells me constantly that he can’t get a single child in the room to pick up after themselves or that they shouldn’t go around breaking the various items in the room. He said that many of the kids in the class are given anything they ask for and never have to clean up after themselves because the parents are feeling guilty about how much they work. How are these kids going to interact with others in the world of higher education or work when folks won’t be so easily rolled over as their parents?
Fact is, dads tend to be the strong arm in most parenting situations. That’s not wrong or a lessening of the mother’s role, not at all. It’s just the way it tends to be. Even in situations where the parents can’t be there as much as they’d like to be, this role is not and cannot be diminished. I’m not saying dads always need to be the heavy or hard-lined about everything, just that they need to understand the importance of giving their kids a framework to live within. Regardless of how much or little a dad can be there physically because he and the mom are trying to provide for the household, the importance of being a leader, a guide and, if necessary, a bad guy simply cannot be lessened.
There should be a point in a dad’s and a child’s life where they can be best friends as much as anything else, but it’s not in the formative years when a child is looking to us to show them how to interact with the world.
And speaking of interacting with the rest of the world, this potential mistake may have never been more important than it is now, since our children have so much day-to-day interaction with the virtual world. We may never be able to know who they’re talking with and what those people are saying. All we can do beyond trying our best to police our kids’ use of these resources, is give them a sense of what’s right and wrong and that there are consequences to actions. Sometimes, we just have to not worry about whether our kids like us and focus more on whether they respect us.
Is there one practical parenting tip you’d suggest to dads?
I’ll give you two, one for during pregnancy, since that’s what my book is about, and one for with your child:
During the pregnancy, stock up on Saltine crackers for your wife or mommy-to-be. These are about the the only things that calmed my wife’s stomach during the pregnancy and helped to reduce the near-constant feeling of nausea. After a while, I’d taken to pocketing the little packs of them you get with soup in restaurants so I could always have some with us.
And, going forward, don’t over react to your child falling down or hurting themselves. They learn how to respond to these things by watching your reactions. When they fall down, you can usually tell if it’s something that would’ve really hurt them, don’t freak out or yell and run over to them, calmly pick them up and comfort them while they cry. If their fall didn’t look like something that really hurt, tell them they’re ok or ignore it. To this day, I see our daughter fall and start winding up a cry and I’ll say, “Oh you’re fine. Here, play with this toy with me.” She’ll forget about her fall instantly about 90% of the time. In the other 10% of the time, she either really got hurt or she was just in a foul mood to begin with. Either of these will require me picking her up to console her anyway. And, nowadays, I see her shaking off a fall on her own and not even responding to it herself.
It’s been said that the greatest regret aging men have is that they didn’t spend more time with their kids and paying more attention on raising kids. How do you feel about that statement?
I can certainly understand that people would have that feeling later. I already find myself regretting how much time I need to spend at work and so on, though I’m lucky by comparison to some men out there, I would bet. There are already times when I’m my daughter’s third or fourth choice for someone to go to if she’s very upset about something (behind my wife, occasionally the babysitter and the dog.) This is very tough for me and I hate seeing that.
All I can do, and anyone else that works or is away from home enough to where this could be a problem, is make the most of the time I have with my girl. Fathers must spend quality time with their kids, talk with them and play with them. Help them with their homework. Have dinner at a dinner table. Don’t just park them in front of the T.V. or buy them a video game system and hope they love you for it. If you must spend a certain amount of time at work or away from your kids, that may be beyond your control. But how you deal with that during the time you do have with them is totally within your control. If you choose not to spend that time wisely, you have nobody to blame but yourself later when you look back. Don’t put yourself in that position.
Every generation worries that their kids aren’t strong enough to handle the real world. Do you feel kids need to be “toughened up” by experiencing rough times?
I’m not necessarily a believer in “toughening up” my kids, but I am a firm believer that there are life lessons that we all must experience and how we deal with these is part of what defines our personalities. Unfortunately, while we’d love to prevent our children from having to experience any pain or struggles in their lives, the fact is this is the only way we learn to deal with the challenges that life has for us as we go forward. While we try to control the circumstances that we have around us throughout our days and so on, we simply cannot control everything. I truly believe we have to give our children the tools necessary to deal with adversity, not the tools to avoid adversity altogether, again, because it will always be there in some ways.
Now, I’m not saying we push our kids out of the nest into the cold, cruel world and hope they fly. We have to support them and help them avoid what can be avoided and recover gracefully with what can’t be.
In my job, for example, I deal with challenges and emergencies on a regular basis. I’m very proud of the fact I can deal with these situations well and have developed a reputation as someone to go to in these situations as a result. I know my mother never tried intentionally to develop this ability with me, so this is something I’ve learned through the life lessons I’ve experienced.
Or conversely, do you think kids need to be smothered with love to give them storehouse of good feelings with which to deal with the inevitable challenges of life in the real world?
A child should never have to wonder if they’re loved by their parents and they should never have to worry where their support comes from. A home should be a port in a storm when they need support. And I will work hard every day to make sure my daughter never has these concerns. However, if I smother her to the point where she is unprepared to handle life in the real world or she can’t handle if someone simply doesn’t like her, I won’t have been doing her any favors. Truthfully, I’m not sure what the balance is right now, only about two years into my first attempt at parenting, but I can say that I want to make certain my girl knows she’s well loved and fully supported so that when adversity comes along, she knows who to go to for help or for a shoulder. She needs to be strong enough to tackle adversity on her own, but know where to go for support if she can’t. I think that’s the best I can do here.
Has anyone inspired you to be a better father? If yes, who?
I actually grew up without my father around and didn’t meet him until much later in life. Maybe this by itself is something that inspires me to do whatever I can to be the best father I possibly can be.
In the past several years, however, I’ve looked at my wife’s family and it’s full of wonderful examples of fathers to emulate. Her uncles, specifically, have done such wonderful jobs with their kids and each of their kids have turned into exceptionally adjusted, intelligent, strong and wonderful adults. They’re all close families and very much family focused. And, I would add, that there’s been plenty of life adversity to go around in their situations. I definitely feel inspired by their wonderful examples and hope to be able to emulate their styles.