Two years ago, I was getting a little woozy as I stared at the proof pages of a magazine I was editing. It was 4 am. I had phoned my wife five times that night, promising to come home soon with each call. I really did love the work I was doing, but not seeing my kids for the whole day left me feeling empty. The worst of the calls involved hearing my newborn wailing in the background as my then four-year-old got on the line to say, “You’re not even going to cuddle with us tonight?”
I had been prepared for missing an occasional night with my kids. I wasn’t equipped to miss the three I missed in that week alone. In just a few days, I had broken most of the important rules I set for myself as a father. I did start changing my ways (and eventually got a different job), but here are the “5 Commandments” that led me — and can help you — to the promised land of involved fatherhood. 1. You Shall Keep Your Promises to Your Kids
Too often, we worry that our employers or clients will fire us if we don’t put them first when they ask for more of our time than we expect. Even more often, we think that we can make it up to our kids for the times we break a promise to be home at a certain time or take them out to play catch. That thinking is wrong. The reality is, the employer or client usually won’t fire you if you set limits (often they respect you more). Your kids, on the other hand, will lose faith in you if it happens too often.
My son used to hover around my home-office, waiting to play with me at my work cut-off time. After a couple of days of doing that, he stopped waiting and went to his room to play alone. When I was ready for him, he told me, “Daddy, I want privacy. Shut the door.” That hurt. So, now, I try to put work on hold and play with him, rather than miss my opportunities.
Keep your promise to your kid and you won’t regret it. You can always catch up with the client after bedtime or schedule another time to follow up. Use modern technology (e-mails and faxes) to work overtime for us and help keep our kids happy.
2. You Shall Not Beat Yourself Up
We can do all the right things and still seem to “fail” with our kids (like when we come home with a great Chinese food and our kid says they no longer like Chinese food). Children don’t give us grades and they give us raises. So there really is no consequence for small mistakes other than their grumpiness. Roll with the punches. If you yell at them or come home late, don’t write yourself off for long. Get back on track because you’ll get a lot of extra chances.
I go through periods where I raise my voice to my kids too often at night. I feel awful, but I do it because I’m out of control. Rather than not deal with them and their frustrating bedtime ways, I work on my expectations and approaches, tinkering every night. I also accept small victories — I’m happy for the nights I don’t yell and even happier for the nights they do almost everything I ask.
3. You Shall Establish a Rhythm
Parenting is like exercise. If you don’t jog regularly, your muscles forget where they should be and cause you pain. Give yourself a few assignments per day that involve helping your kids and you will get in their daily rhythm. Strive to have moments with them morning, noon and night. Try serving breakfast each day or every other day, driving them to or from school regularly, and reading to them or checking their homework each night.
I’m not a morning person, but I started making the occasional lunch for my oldest son. It’s small stuff, but I do it in the morning and ask him how he liked the lunch later. In this way, I stay in his rhythm in the morning, the afternoon (when he’s eating it), and at night.
Here’s another idea: If you leave before the kids go to school, put a note in their lunch or call them from work before they go. Phone calls do not replace being there, but they can certainly keep you more in the loop than if you disappear from their lives for the day. You can also e-mail them in the afternoon while they’re doing homework.
4. You Shall Hug a Lot
Men are notoriously stereotyped as undemonstrative. That’s generally correct. If you are this way, consider the clichï¿½ of a hug a day. Kids need touch for security and love. Getting a hug — maybe more than one and throw some kisses in there, too — means so much to a child in a cold world. You are their reliable source for validation, so give it. Here’s a tip: when you can’t think of anything to say or do with your child — whatever they’re age — give your child a hug. They may sometimes push you away — as my six-year-old now does, especially around his friends — but what counts is that they know what you mean and it means the world.
5. You Shall Take Time Off
Quality time is what matters. Being focused on nothing but your kids for more than a couple of hours allows you to know them in a well-rounded fashion. So take a vacation, at least two solid weeks a year. And take occasional days off, maybe even once a month. My buddy Sang just had his first child and was stressed out over the fact that he couldn’t see his kid during the day except on weekends. I suggested he take one day off each month or every two months. I also recommended he run home for lunch once a week or twice a month. In the scheme of things, it’s not much time from work and — now that he does it — it means a lot to him to be with his child just a little more.
I know for certain that, if you follow each one of these commandments to at least some small degree, you will be a better father.