What Good Is Dad For?

Thanks to the patriarch.

Christmastime is here, and to commemorate the Father's gift of His Son to the world, fathers everywhere are buying loot for their kids. Oh, what a generous God; oh, what a generous Dad. This is indeed a season of love. Unless Dad isn't around to buy presents or is trying to buy affection in absentia with extravagant gifts, or gives presents but not love, or a host of other things. Tolstoy said that all unhappy females are unhappy in their own way, but it seems to me as though a lot of unhappy families have at least one thing in common — the dysfunctional father.

Perhaps for this reason, fathers have taken a beating of late in the national imagination. Fathers get portrayed as confused, bumbling goofs or rigid, distant monsters. Father doesn't know best; someone else does, be it mom or kids or school or sociologists. What good is he? As a brief answer, I'd like to volunteer my own father and thank him for the gifts he gave me.

Dad married Mom in September of 1966. He was 23, she was 24. At the time, he was a graduate student in psychology, specializing in the moral development of children. Today, besides, teaching teachers how to teach, he is involved with character education, an effort to clean up the mess created when public schools bought into the myth of moral relativism. I think ti's noble work, and I admire him for it. I admire him for a lot of things — his humility in the face of hostility, his moral courage, his devotion to his work, his optimism and perseverance, his insistence on clarity, accuracy, and detail. Being a good father, however, requires something more.

There is a plaque in my father's office that reads, "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." I think that's true, and I know Dad loves Mom. As long as I can remember, he has gotten up first, made her coffee, and brought it to her in bed, a habit I am trying to acquire. I know he loves us, too. I know because he paid attention — he kept detailed journals about my brother and me when we were growing up. I know because he never pushed us to be what he wanted, but to be what we thought God wanted.

I know because he disciplined me. When he came to the movie theater where I was seeing a movie I had been forbidden to see and led me away in front of everyone I was with. I was mortified. But by the end of high school, when classmates pitied me for my strict father, I was able to say, "At least I know he cares about me."

I want to thank him for teaching me moral reasoning, for making little use of the parental authority to simply command — for explaining the reasons to be good. The reasons changed as I grew older — "Because it serves the common good" has little impact on a two-year-old — but he tailored them to my understanding and kept on explaining. This method was surely a trial of his patience, as I became an adept arguer, squeezing through tiny loopholes and squawking at the occasional unexplicated order, but he persevered, to my benefit.

Spankings topped early in my upbringing, replaced by the Long Talk, during which my misbehavior assumed its proper shape and weight, whether it be betrayal of trust, failure to live up to an agreement, or disrespect of those deserving respect. By the end, when he asked me to name a fair punishment for myself, I was not overly lenient. I sometimes mocked the Long Talk, intoning, "I believe AND furthermore not to MENTION," but its effectiveness was unquestioned, and it became more painful and more dreaded than whatever consequences followed.

Someone told me once about a theologian who said, "A mother is mother by nature; but a father is a father by will," sort of an eloquent summation of what is meant by "a face only a mother could love." Moms are more naturally connected to their children. Dads have to want to be involved.

I want to thank my dad for exerting his will to keep the family close, to instill an interest in (and consequent love for) one another. When a familial problem arose, Dad would call a family meeting, during which the offended parties would air their grievances and work things out. We had to repeat what the other person said, beginning, "You feel that..." so that they would feel understood, and so we would have to actually listen to each other.

Family dinners were near nightly, and they always included a topic, on which everyone spoke. Topics might be questions such as, "What are three of the most memorable moments of your life and why?" or ideas, such as "Beauty." When I was younger, Dad read questions from Dear Abby and we compared our questions to Abby's.

I once thought of the "topic" as controlling and artificial and I used to fight Dad's suggestions. But by imposing an order on the conversation, he prevented any one person from controlling, excluding himself. Everyone got to speak while everyone listened. And the initial awkwardness of a superficial order was outweighed. Now, the conversations that arise from topics at dinner are often the highlights of family gatherings.

Those efforts at family unity meant pushing through my childhood protests at Mom's reading on family car trips, protests that faded as soon as the story started. I count myself luck to have hear The Trumpeter of Krakow and The Witch of Blackbird Pond while heading off on vacation. She would read to me at night — lending vocal characteristics to the tales of Brer Rabbit and Uncle Wiggly. These were followed by the the Little House books, The Hobbit, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Watership Down, and others.

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