Todd Patkin and we share a lot of the same philosophy about the importance of dads. It was fun to get a chance to ask him some questions that get at the heart of some of the themes in his new book.
Q: You’ve written an important book that touches on an important aspect of parenting, Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. What is the one thing you think parents should know about your work?
The biggest takeaway for parents is the importance of being happy. I don’t just mean trying to raise happy kids—I mean being happy yourself, and being happy when you’re with your kids. Our children learn to live their own lives by watching how we live ours. They notice when we’re too hard on ourselves and don’t show ourselves enough love, and when they see that, they’ll grow up thinking that unhappiness is an acceptable way to live. However, by modeling what positive priorities, outlooks, and attitudes look like to your children, you’ll give your kids the best chance of growing into content, positive, and fulfilled adults.
Q: What are your feelings about the role of the father in child development?
Fathers are incredibly important in their children’s development. Kids want our approval so badly, even though we may not realize it. In many cases, what fathers see as annoying behaviors or acting out are their children’s attempts to catch our attention and impress us. They watch everything we do, and if they see you absent or unwilling to spend time with them, they’ll learn that working is more important than family. However, if they see you present and engaged, they’ll learn balance. At a time when many fathers perhaps haven’t been as engaged due to insane work schedules, it’s more important than ever for us to be purposeful about setting aside time to spend with our kids.
Q: What is the best thing dads can do in raising children?
Not just dads, but parents in general, are often guilty of thinking about work or bills or the car repair while ostensibly spending time with their kids. Remember that kids are smarter than we often give them credit for. They know when your mind is elsewhere, and when that happens they’ll feel unimportant. Over time, your relationship will suffer. One of the best things you can do as a dad is to be there—in body and in mind—when you’re with your children. And as long as you’re present, why not also try to be the funnest father around, someone your kids can truly have a ball with?
Q: What is the biggest parenting mistake dads can make in raising their children?
The biggest mistake dads can make is not loving their kids for who they are. You may think that you’re doing your child a favor by trying to mold him in a certain way—but that logic only holds so far. Trying to force your child to be who you want him to be, and not who he really is, will do him a great disservice. Trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So even if you wanted your son to be a star athlete, you’d better love him just as well if he prefers the arts, and be cheering loudly at all of his concerts.
Q: Is there one practical parenting tip you’d suggest to dads?
In some ways, dads tend to be very simple. We think about work for large portions of our day (after all, our jobs are how we provide for and support our families!), and because so much of our time is spent at “the office,” that’s what we tend to prioritize. We know we’ve got to have a great meeting, for example, or make sure that a particular delivery gets made—so we plan for and devote a lot of thought and energy to achieving those goals. I advise treating time with your kids the same way! Purposefully set aside an hour with your children in the evening for starters, and put some thought into what you need to do to make sure they have a ball. If you spend as much time planning kid time as planning work time, you’ll be amazed by how positive the results are!
Q: 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 agree one hundred percent! Believe me, I know how tempting it is for men to focus their lives on other things. It’s easy to believe that you need to be at work longer than the standard eight hours or so in order to provide the best life for your family. It’s easy to become addicted to achievement and accolades. However, it’s very painful and difficult to wake up when you’re 60, 70, or 80 and realize that you really screwed up. At that point, you’ve missed out on the opportunity to be an active part of your kids’ growing-up years. No matter how committed you are to your career, remember that your most important and rewarding job will always be “dad.”
Q: 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 think it’s great for kids to experience disappointing times, like being cut from the baseball team or not getting a prominent role in a dance recital, for example. No one’s life is perfect, and we can all expect to face obstacles and disappointments from time to time. It’s best if children realize this before they leave the love and support of their parents’ homes. I truly believe that it’s a blessing when kids go through tough times…but only when they happen naturally. Parents certainly don’t need to make it their “job” to toughen their kids up!
Q: 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?
Again, I agree 100 percent! I believe that our job as parents is to give our kids love, love, and more love. They should never, ever doubt how much they mean to us or how special they are. However, it is not our job to make our kids’ lives easy. I understand the impulse to shield your children from pain, but it is a mistake to protect them from everything. Don’t do for them what they could and should do for themselves. For example, think about the girl whose father takes her car in for services and fills it up with gas because he doesn’t want her to be gawked at, or the boy whose mother very heavily edits his school papers. These kids will be fine until they leave home—and then they’ll be at a disadvantage because of their lack of self-sufficiency. Try to be realistic about what your kids are capable of doing by themselves, and graduate these responsibilities as they grow.
Q: Has anyone inspired you to be a better father? If yes, who?
Actually, I inspired myself to be a better father. To be more specific, the nervous breakdown I had at age 36 inspired me to change a lot about my life. I had been driven by perfectionism and the fear of not measuring up, and even though I had achieved career and monetary success, I was plagued by depression and anxiety. My breakdown made me see that I had been focusing my life on the wrong things. I realized that I wasn’t happy with myself as a dad because I had been at work all the time. I looked at the person I had been, and I knew that I no longer wanted to screw up the most important task in my life. Without a doubt, the years after my breakdown have been the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. My son is always my priority—and we’re both better off for it.