Fatherly Advice

Tomorrow is Father’s Day.  All across America, fathers will be receiving cologne, ties, and power tools, and everyone else will be thinking about the sage advice and guidance that they received from their own dear Dads.

e04aaedc09e253b1f93d41943aee090eMy Dad wasn’t much for giving pointed advice about your life, however.  In fact, you could say he had a decidedly laissez-faire attitude about how and what people were doing.  Whenever he heard about somebody doing something that suggested that they were really going off the rails, Dad typically would shrug and mutter something about people needing to “do their own thing” and “find their niche.”  These phrases, in fact, were heard so often that they became part of the Webner family lexicon.  I think Dad realized that he didn’t have all the answers, and he wasn’t going to impose his views on somebody else — who probably wouldn’t have appreciated his attempt to steer the course of their life, anyway.

And you know what?  Nine times out of ten, the person who was struggling figured things out for themselves, through a little trial and error, and in the meantime the family happily missed out on the drama and slamming doors and yelling and hard feelings that sometimes can be the result of a little aggressive parenting.

As I sit here, I realize that I also haven’t really offered much in the way of Father Knows Best-type wisdom, either.  Sure, I instructed the boys not to stick their fingers into electrical sockets and told them that littering was wrong, but beyond those basics the only thing hard and fast rule I remember imposing was that if you wanted to play on a sports team, you had to stick it out and play to the end of the season, to be fair to your teammates and your coaches.   I suppose you could draw some deep life lessons from that, if you tried real hard, but of course the rule wasn’t meant to convey deep life lessons — just to establish an understanding of the consequences of decisions about childhood things like Little League and the Nazarene basketball league.

So where do you go if you really want to get some fatherly advice?  That’s simple:  Homer Simpson.  Here’s an example:  “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Hey, maybe getting fatherly advice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, after all.

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Thinking About Dad

On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking about Dad.  My guess is that most of the fathers out there will think, at some point today, about the man who played that role in their lives and who provided the personal examples, good and bad, of how to be a Dad.

I say good and bad because there aren’t many perfect Dads outside the black-and-white world of ’50s TV sitcoms.  Dad wasn’t a perfect father, and neither am I.  We all approach the job differently, drawing on our own experiences, aspirations, and fears, and we all make lots of mistakes that we beat ourselves up about.

webnerfamilyphoto3But here is the thing:  the missed baseball game or the seemingly unfair discipline or the harsh comment tend to fall away over time, sent skittering down the memory hole, and the perspective changes forever when you personally tackle the tough, infinitely challenging job of being a Dad.  When you understand how easily parenting blunders can be made, those blunders tend to be forgiven, and a big picture emerges that is a lot more balanced.

My Dad has been gone for many years, and when I think of him now I think mostly of his attitude.  Kish and I often quote, with a chuckle, two of Dad’s favorite sayings — “finding your niche” and “doing your own thing” — that Dad inevitably used, after first clearing his throat with a rumble, when he was told of a child’s decision to follow an unconventional life or career path.  It was a remarkably easygoing attitude for a man who experienced the Great Depression as a child and who was himself highly motivated to achieve traditional financial success, but Dad really meant it. I always appreciated that approach, and I’ve come to appreciate it even more as the years have passed.

There are deeper elements to that attitude, when you think about it.  It is rooted in trust and confidence and understanding:  trust that his kids would eventually find our way to a good and fulfilling life, confidence that he and Mom gave us a sufficient grounding in appropriate behavior that we wouldn’t end up in a biker gang, and understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all path to happiness.  It is a liberating attitude, too, for both parent and child.  The parent isn’t frazzled by constant worry about whether their child will measure up to their own definition of personal success, and the child isn’t burdened by the ever-present specter of parental disapproval about this decision, or that.

Thanks, Dad, for that lesson — and Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there.

Dads Above The Lannister Line

At first I thought it was very poor judgment for HBO to show the last episode of this season of Game of Thrones on Father’s Day.  (WARNING:  Spoiler Alert!)

After all, what Dad wants to see another Dad shot through the gut by a crossbow quarrel?  Especially when the shooter is the Dad’s angry dwarf son?  And, even worse, when the Dad is taking a dump in a privy, and his son doesn’t even afford his father the courtesy of allowing him to pull up his breeches and assume a more dignified appearance before firing the fatal bolts, and then leaves his ol’ Dad to die there in stinking vapor?

Then I realized that HBO is savvier than I am.  It obviously realized that, initially, Dads might be troubled by seeing Tywin the Terrible impaled by his offspring while answering the call of nature . . . but they ultimately would compare themselves to the ex-Hand of the King and realize that they were doing a pretty good job in the fathering department by comparison.  After all, most of us aren’t ruthlessly murdered by our children.  We also don’t have children who engage in incestuous relations, we don’t have sex with our children’s paramours, we don’t decide that our children should be sentenced to death by beheading, and we haven’t ruined our children’s lives by having their wives held out as whores to our personal army.

So yes, maybe there is a method of HBO’s madness in broadcasting last night’s episode of Game of Thrones on Father’s Day.  Even the most fretful Dad, wondering about whether they are doing a good job of parenting, has got to feel pretty confident that they’ve easily surpassed the Lannister Line.

The Changing Focus On Fathers

For much of its history, psychology has been no big friend of fathers.  The focus was on the importance of the mother, and fathers were lurking there somewhere in the background as one of the many other influences that could shape a person.

16Several decades ago, however, the perception began to change, and psychologists began to reassess the significance of fathers.  Now, research indicates that fathers play a key role in creating an atmosphere of personal security in which children can gain confidence, in helping children to develop through creative and unstructured play — this means running around, making up games, and doing silly stuff, in non-psychologist speak — and in demonstrating, through their involvement, the importance of education and proper adult relations with others in the world at large.  In one recent study, for example, fathers were found to have an even greater impact on child language development than mothers.

It’s kind of weird to think that psychologists ever diminished the role of fathers; it seems obvious that children would be shaped by observing and interacting with the other parent in the household.  It’s interesting, too, that the shift in perception of fathers has occurred as the number of households without fathers has increased, and statistics are showing that the absence of a father as a permanent member of the family can have lasting negative social and economic effects.  Reality finally is trumping early psychological theory.

None of these studies and discoveries come as a surprise, I’m sure, to actual people.  Kids who grew up in traditional households understand the importance and influence (good and bad) of both mothers and fathers.  Every father I know thinks that role is an important one — although they may wonder whether their judgments are sound and wish there was an instructional manual that provided guidance on how to deal with some of the situations that arise.  The bottom line is, we just do the best we can and hope.

Happy Father’s Day!

A Father’s Little Mysteries

On this Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about my father and wishing I knew a little bit more about certain parts of his life.

It’s not that Dad was a person of conscious mystery.  It’s just that, for the most part, he was a quiet man who kept his earlier life to himself.  He didn’t dominate the conversation when we sat down for dinner at night or regularly regale us with stories of his childhood in Uhrichsville and Akron or talk about his college days.  As a result, there are parts of his life that are a bit of a mystery to me, and those little mysteries will probably never be solved to my satisfaction.

IMG_3910For example, when he was a young man Dad had the nickname Lucky Pierre.  I’ve now inherited the 60-year-old caricature drawing of Dad that shows it.  Mom says that when she first started dating him, she thought his real first name was Pierre, because that’s what Dad’s fraternity friends and other members of their crowd always called him.  In those days, the frat guys would invite their dates over to the frat house and put on little comedy skits and shows for entertainment — something that it’s hard to imagine the father I knew doing — and in the skits he was called Lucky Pierre.  He played basketball on a team with his friends and had a jersey with Lucky Pierre on it.  It obviously was a moniker he liked.

These aren’t things Dad ever talked about; they are little bits and pieces of his life that I’ve heard about from others over the years.  So, how did a regular guy named Jim living in Akron, Ohio come to be called Lucky Pierre?  Mom doesn’t know, she says.  I have a vague sense that it involved some kind of vulgar fraternity humor that twenty-something guys find hilarious — but what incident was responsible for him getting that name in the first place?

I’ll probably never know the complete answer to this question, and a bunch of other ones, too.  Maybe it’s good for a man to have his little mysteries, but on this Father’s Day I wish I knew a little bit more about the back story of the Dad I knew and the course that his life took before UJ, me, Cath, Margaret, and Jean arrived on the scene.  It would help to round out my understanding of this man who played such a huge and essential role in my own life.

Happy Father’s Day!

Today is Father’s Day, and fathers across America will be showered with cards and ties and cologne and coffee cups with “#1 Dad” on them.

It’s nice to get stuff that proclaims that you’re “#1,” of course, but most Dads I know would gladly settle for just getting a passing grade in the cosmic fathering curriculum.  I can’t claim to speak for every father in America, of course, but I suspect most Dads would probably admit, deep down, that they aren’t very confident that they know exactly what they are doing.  We know that there are good Dads, and bad Dads, and lots of Dads in between, just trying to do their best at an important role where there’s no training manual or meaningful checklist.  We’ve observed our own fathers, and their fathers, and seen other fathers, and we’ve tried to borrow what seems to work and avoid what doesn’t — but still we wonder.

So the coffee cups and ties are nice, but I think the best Father’s Day gift is delivered when you realize, as I have, that your kids are good people, decent and resilient, fending for themselves and making their way in the world.