In January of 1996 our two sons were six and eight years old.
Being a dad wasn’t working out as I’d hoped.
I grew up on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”.
Our home was more like “The Simpson”s or “Married With Children”.
That January I found myself on an airplane sitting next to a woman who is a psychologist and an expert on rearing children. I asked her for advice on how to be a better dad.
We talked for hours and she had many sensible suggestions. As we approached Kennedy Airport, she said, “Well, there really isn’t time left to get into much depth, so let me ask you a simple question.”
“Can you imagine you and your family in some idealized future setting?”
“Yes.” It wasn’t a hard question, “When I was in college I traveled around Europe on a rail pass by myself. On the one hand I wished that my parents had been with me as we explored things together. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine that the experience would have actually been a pleasant one.”
“When we had our own children, it was my fantasy that we could be the kind of parents that our children would enjoy having with them on vacation. Right now the thought of spending time together is inconsistent with our concept of a vacation. I’m sure they find our company “no fun” as well. It seems like we spend our days making up rules and enforcing them. They resent all that we do for them. It seems likely I’ll have to give up on that fantasy.”
“That’s perfect,” said my traveling companion. “Imagine what the ideal rail trip would be like. Imagine all of you exploring new things together, sharing experiences, and enjoying each other’s company. Imagine what it would feel like.”
“Good. Have a concrete image in your mind of this trip and set it as a goal. Now don’t concentrate on where you will go, or what you will see, but rather on how you, and everyone else, will feel and how you will interact.”
“Now, as you go through your daily life, each time you are about to do something, think to yourself, ‘Is what I am about to do going to bring me closer to this goal?’ If it occurs to you that what you are about to do now might hurt your chances of reaching your goal, try something different instead.”
I took this to heart. Each time I was about to yell about homework, bath time, or bedtime, I thought again. We found better ways of motivating our children without the acrimony.
In the summer of 1998, less than three years after that plane trip, we planned a vacation in Europe. Other parents assumed we were going as a couple and offered to introduce us to the baby sitters they trusted with their children when they went away. Traveling with their children was inconsistent with their concept of a vacation.
But we wanted to see if we could make our vision a reality. We all remember that trip; we visited France, Italy, and Switzerland by rail pass. Eve and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute we spent with our children. They enjoyed their time with us.
I can attribute most of my disappointments as a parent to a failure to remember or apply the things I learned on that flight in 1996.
It is better to keep a goal in mind and make up rules along the way than to follow rules and lose sight of the goal.