Is it too cliched to write about dads just after Fathers’ Day?
I’ve been wondering what makes a great dad. Not just what are the characteristics of a great dad but how a man becomes a great parent, what attitudes and circumstances lead to that apparent ease in the role.
Some of us, of course, have been blessed with the example of a great father as we grew up. All we’ve had to do is copy him, whilst adapting a few aspects to a new generation. Often, it’s so ingrained that it’s not even a conscious mimicking but one day, we notice ourselves using the same phrases with our children that we heard (‘I want doesn’t get’), stroking an ill child’s arm with the same comfort we received, or passing on the love of an activity like gardening or photography that we were taught.
These echoes and ripples flow naturally into our lives and sometimes we find ourselves driving the same roads together with our own offspring with those nostalgic memories a backbone for how to manage them. In our case, it literally is the same road – the A1 – as we repeat those precious university journeys side by side building strong connections with our now adult children.
Others, however, have experienced at best, patchy and at worst, terrible fathering. And yet I have seen a great dad grow even out of these. And, as none of us has perfect parents, the techniques (for want of a better word) to achieve this surely apply to all parents.
For a start, a poor experience can be a powerful motivator to be different. We know what it feels like to be on the receiving end so can be determined that our children will not share that, that we will not fall into whatever trapped our parent into their mistakes.
But to do that, we need to understand what led to our parents to making such mistakes. What parenting did they receive? What troubles weighed them down and what hurdles stood in their way before they ever became mothers and fathers? Let’s remember that they weren’t always parents, that they were (and continued to be) people first, with hopes and dreams, ambitions and worries, cares and nightmares.
Where did they start from and how does that compare with where they ended up? It’s easy to forget that the previous generation lived through history we have never come anywhere near. I don’t know what it was like to grow up through the London Blitz, to be evacuated from my family at only 11 years old, or to lose my home when my father was unemployed for years in the Depression. I didn’t experience living in a two room house, being brought up mainly by my sister from an early age, or having to move to another country to find work. How can such things have failed to have influenced, maybe even damaged, our parents? But knowing these things might help me see how much they achieved against such odds.
I bought my husband a T shirt once with the logo ‘Knowledge is Power’. It seemed apt for his going back to university. But now I think about it, I believe it would be more accurate to say that understanding is power. If we can understand our parents, their background, their motivations, even their deprivations, we can put their mistakes into context. We can then more accurately assess their parenting of us and we can better consider the legacy it leaves us.
However, understanding is useless without forgiveness. And that’s one of the most powerful things I have seen making someone a great dad – not just the decision to forgive children for their conscious mistakes or unconscious effects (sleep deprivation anyone?!) but also to forgive one’s own parent’s mistakes. That’s hard. It’s also not just a one-off decision and finished with. But it is possible.
George Elliot said:
“A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
I have seen a good dad with the utmost bravery ignore the option of denial and, instead, take the chaff and grain of his own childhood, carefully sift and search out the good so that none of it is lost, and then let go of the rest, refusing to give in to bitterness. That’s forgiveness.
I have seen him take the good from his past and apply it to his own parenting, adding to his store the experience of having other men God has sent into his life as fathers to him. That’s determination to become a good dad.
And the result? He isn’t a good dad – he’s become a great dad.