Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, “A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter to a friend, including a photo of my son and some first impressions of fatherhood. He responded, simply, ‘Everything is possible again.’ It was the perfect thing to write because that was exactly how it felt.”
Parenthood is all about possibility and new beginnings. Many of us, myself included, may have grown up in less than ideal conditions when it comes to the father-child bond, but that doesn’t mean that those patterns have to continue. Each and every day we wake up again, we have the opportunity in front of us to do it all over again, or as the Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl said, we can “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.”
Personally, I am a walking example of this. Being one of four children myself, as well as the youngest, I grew up pretty independent and fending for myself. Though I didn’t suffer or starve, I found myself on many occasions craving something from my parents that they weren’t equipped to provide, and that was the gift of presence. Ever since becoming a father myself, now a father of four, I have seen firsthand the impact a father’s presence can have upon his children.
In today’s media, you may read that fathers are more important now than ever before. I believe that is misleading. Fathers have always been important throughout history, fathers are important today, and fathers will continue to be important tomorrow.
Today, I’d like to share with you a plan I call “The 12 Days of Fatherhood.” These are simple, down-to-earth activities that we can all do with kids of any age, once a day, starting on the 14th of December. I have done all of them before, by the way, but I plan on sharing with you stories from my experience on how they have impacted my relationship with my children. If we merely spend a fraction of our time committing to the once-a-day activities on this list, that minuscule investment of time will have greater returns on your investment than you could ever imagine.
Here’s the schedule:
Have a movie night, where you and your children pick two films to watch together. Make popcorn, gorge on sugary snacks and sodas, but most importantly, watch the movie from the comfort of a bed you create on the floor. Extra credit if you also make a couch cushion fort to top the bedding area and protect it from outsiders. Lastly, spend the night there after the movie, falling asleep in each others’ arms.
Set a “date” – even if it is only for a couple of hours – and allow your children to make all the decisions for what you do together, even if that means spending a small fortune on ice cream, playing in the ball crawl at McDonald’s, or allowing your young daughter to practice her makeup skills using your face.
Make a list of 10 things you are thankful for with respect to your children. Then, sit down, face-to-face with them, and read them the list.
Have dinner together. Bring your children into the process of making the dinner, as much as safely possible, and then eat together at your table (or couch, if you don’t have a table). No TV, no phone, no tablets, no computers – just you, your family, and conversation.
Ask your children what they did that day, but then listen as though it was the most important thing you have ever heard. Ask questions, show interest, and just listen deeply.
Spend at least 30 minutes with your children before bed. If you have older children, you could watch a show with them or play video games. If you have younger children, you could read stories together, or better yet, make up your own stories! Don’t be afraid to get into character, either!
Tell your children a story or three of what life was like when you were a kid – especially if it’s an embarrassing one.
Play a game. It could be hide-and-seek, tag, chess, checkers, Uno, or backgammon. Just play a game. Have fun, resist being overly competitive, and laugh at yourself when you lose.
Go outside. Sure, it’s December, and yes, it is cold if you’re in the northern hemisphere, but bundle up and do it anyway. Go for a walk around your neighborhood. Build a snow fort. Go sledding. Make snow angels. Then, come inside and warm your hands together by the fire or a heating register before you sit together and enjoy some hot chocolate. Don’t forget the marshmallows.
Make awards for your children. They could be cheesy trophy-like awards with permanent marker writings, or you could go elaborate and make certificates of appreciation for them. Find some act of kindness, gratitude, or appreciation that your children did today, and give them an award for this.
Find some cardboard and build something out of it – together. Ideas can come from any source, but consider making a bus, a rocket ship, an arcade game, etc. Build it and then enjoy it together.
Sit your children down and take a deep breath. Look them in the eyes, and without hesitation, tell them you love them, and mean it, but don’t stop there. Tell them that they are your life, your world, and your everything. Do this every single day possible, for the rest of your lives together, even when – no – especially when you don’t feel like it. Children are born with a need to be loved, and they never outgrow it.
Do these activities on each of the 12 days leading up to Christmas, and I can guarantee you it will be a Christmas you and your family will never, ever forget.
Parenting is a lot like golf sometimes. You swing and you miss. You hit out of bounds. You’re lost in the water. You’re into rough so deep, you’re beginning to wonder if Bear Grylls could even find his way out. But then, it happens. You hit that one perfect shot, that one ball that gets small, real quick, and as it sails straight and true toward its target, you feel invigorated and energized, ready for another ten years of failures ahead.
When it comes to parenting, you can have one moment of frustration leading to another, but then, it happens.
I recall a day last summer, when the kids were bored. You know, at the end of the summer, when everyone is simply ready to go back to school. They were fighting, at each others’ throats, and on our last nerve. I reached a point in my frustration where I couldn’t take it anymore, and I came to a fork in the road. One path led me to a temper-induced fiery blow-up of biblical proportions that could only end in tears. The other was the path less traveled. I decided to let go. I closed my laptop and put away my mountain of work for the day. My students were not there in front of me, but my children were.
I put my shoes on, grabbed them by the arms, and took them to the end of the driveway. They looked worried. I looked at them and said, angrily, “Do you know what we’re going to do next?!?” Sheepishly, they replied, “No…” “Good,” I said, “because neither do I, but we’re about to do it and do it up right.”
We went for a random walk to nowhere. I told them stories of how I got into trouble when I was their age. I told them adventurous stories of the crazy things I did as a kid, and then told them never to do those things. We eventually ended up at a park, where I saw a large patch of clover, so I sat down and began combing through them. I told them about how four-leaf clovers imbue their finders with luck. We pored over the patch for what seemed like forever before I finally located one, but then, as my children all swarmed the area I was searching, we found not just one more, but a total of six more four-leaf clovers in a matter of moments. We carefully took them home with us, where I found some epoxy. We cut up an empty toilet paper tube and mounted each of them in epoxy, preserving the moment forever.
As I was tucking my youngest in for the evening after our adventurous day, he hugged me a little tighter and whispered into my ear, “Daddy, this was the best day ever.”
The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, “The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions – the little, soon forgotten charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look or heartfelt compliment.”
The next two weeks are your fork in the road. Go out and find your little, soon forgotten charities and make memories that will live long past the time we are all gone, because fatherhood is our legacy.
The memories we create today will not only outlive us as stories told to our grandchildren and their children, but we are also potentially shaping the way in which our children interact with those grandchildren.
Consider it an advent calendar of a different type, where each day, you are opening up a new world of possibilities.