Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Sergeant Major Dad

I haven't posted for a few weeks, mainly because I've been too busy being a Dad to write about it. But I've certainly been reflecting on it, and something has been bothering me.

My wife went away for a few days, and I had the boys to myself. When I see Mums on the school run at times like this, they tend to ask 'How's it going?', with a worried look on their face. I tend to reply, rather too enthusiastically, 'Brilliant!' Because the honest truth is that I find lone parenting absolutely fine, and in some ways easier than sharing the duties. I like to do things my way, and I'm confident I'm doing a good job. We do things, stuff gets done, she comes back, everybody's happy.

But there is one aspect of my parenting that I suspect might be different when she's not around. She sometimes says I can slip into 'Sergeant Major mode', i.e. things need to be done, they need to be done my way and they need to be done NOW. I think I might do this even more in her absence.

Take one example, which has been bugging me. My six-year-old had been chucking his bottle of squash around at his gym competition, and after we drove on to a festival down the road I realised we no longer had it. When I asked him where it was, he didn't display the necessary level of concern regarding its whereabouts. I blew my top, and marched us all a few hundred yards down the road in the searing heat to go and reclaim the bottle, barking at him to keep up.

I was hard on him, but deliberately so. I thought I was teaching him a lesson: that I work hard to ensure that he has 'things', and that he has no right to be so offhand about them. This was something that he seemed to be increasingly prone to, and I felt I needed to nip that growing sense of entitlement in the bud, to teach him that 'Mum and Dad will sort it' is not always the answer. Take responsibility.

I still think that's right, but on the other hand it was a £1 bottle and we could have all done without the walk back and the black cloud descending.

Are you a Sergeant Major Dad?

Then last week I was at a conference in Stockholm, and I met a lawyer from the US. We got chatting about fatherhood, and I recorded what he had to say. When we parted I realised to my horror that it hadn't recorded. If you're out there, I'm really sorry not to give you due credit and to do justice to your insightful and eloquent comments.

The gist of what he said was that he enjoyed being a Dad more when he stopped treating every interaction with his children as an opportunity to teach them a lesson, to build their character. In fact, he realised that he needed to learn from them. They are the future, literally, and they know far more about what to wear, how to act etc than we do.

He gave me the example of receiving a late night phone call from a girlfriend of one of his sons. He launched into the typical Dad diatribe, do you know what time it is, etc etc, and then slowly realised that this girl was, in a very responsible manner, asking him to come and pick his son up because he had had too much to drink. 'Here she was doing the grown up thing, being responsible, and I would have got in the way.'

But don't they sometimes need to learn those lessons, I asked? 'Life does a pretty good job of teaching them', he replied. 'If you do it, do they just learn that they do that thing and Dad gets mad?'

Relax, he said, and learn from them.

As I say, this guy had much more wisdom to impart than I can. I'm sorry I didn't get his name, but I'm going to learn from him and relax.

P.S. Another thing about the bottle incident… I felt really bad about it. Do other Dads out there think that a sense of guilt is a decent indication that your parenting has gone awry? Or is it not as simple as that?

P.P.S. Actually, thinking about the bottle incident even more… maybe I felt particularly guilty because deep down I knew I couldn't be 100% sure that it wasn't me that put the bottle down somewhere. All in all, the whole kerfuffle was definitely not worth the effort.

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