Fathering beyond ‘Normal’

I’ve been reflecting recently on my father’s life and what he taught me. My father was great (though certainly not perfect), and I keep appreciating more and more how different he was from the ‘average father’ in many ways.  Many of these storied reminded me of great values I hope I can pass on well to my children.

When I was in elementary school, I loved competing in a local paper airplane contest.  A ‘normal’ father may have said encouraging things, or bought me a book about paper airplanes, but my my father patiently took me to his schools’ gym (he was a school teacher) where for hours and hours on many nights and weekends, he would patiently hang out while I threw so many different types of paper airplanes trying to identify the best one.

In addition to paper airplanes, I also really enjoyed real airplanes as a kid.  A ‘normal’ dad may have rented a movie about airplanes, but my father look me down to the local (small) airport and knocked on the door at the air traffic tower, and asked a very confused man if we could come up and see the air traffic control tower from the inside.  The man was very confused, asking if my dad was a controller, or a pilot, or if he worked for the FAA.  My father explained that no, but his son wanted to see the inside, the and confused man welcomed us up and explained all the screens/lights up in the tower.

Growing up, when we saw someone stranded on the side of the road, my father didn’t just drive by or think to call the police after we got home (this was pre-cell phone era) — instead, he would pull over to the side of the road, get the reflective vest and flashlight wand he randomly kept in his trunk, and ask my mom to drive us home, so he could direct traffic or help them change a tire.  Inevitably, a police officer or other helpful person would drop my dad off at home later that day.

When I was transitioning from playing T-ball to ‘real baseball’, I struggled with timing my swing.  My father could have just encouraged me to keep practicing.  Or asked the coach for some additional attention.  But instead, he recruited one of his friends to come to the baseball field with us some random Saturday and video tape me swinging so we could go home and watch my baseball swing in slow-motion.  We quickly diagnosed the problem.

My father’s hobby was investing in other people’s lives — whenever he would talk to someone else, he’d pepper them with questions with a real curiosity on learning more about their life and what was important to them, often finding areas where he could help them.

He worked long hours, often juggling teaching and other side jobs, but he was always showing my sister and I with his time that we were very important to us.  He was hours early to every play or dance recital, ensuring he had great seats for him (and any family that came at a reasonable time to find the seats he saved) and he was at every baseball game.

He taught my sister and I a real focus on living well below/within our means and saving our pennies for a rainy day — it’s amazing to realize how powerful this is in, once you connect this value with some understanding of things like simple investing, 401(k), IRA accounts, etc. — it’s so powerful to transition from youth to adult by getting used to saving early.  And so hard to make that transition later.

He was constantly serving people — he and my mom were always volunteering around our church when we were growing up, which looking back on, I am so impressed with, because it’s hard just getting young kids to church and home.

Work hard and be proud of your work — he loved to say that “There’s no such thing as extra credit in this house”, meaning that any opportunity to get extra credit in a class wasn’t optional — it was expected we’d take every opportunity we were given to succeed.

He had great little nuggets of wisdom to share all the time, like:

  • Slow down when you’re doing public speaking — people often get nervous and talk way too fast
  • Be respectful to everyone, not just people with important job titles or in positions to help you
  • Take the time to learn people’s names and learn about them — he loved to remind people of how people took good care of him when he’d go get his car oil changed because he knew the people who worked there, and would write letters to their boss when they did a good job.  And because of this, people would constantly be chatting with him and offering him discounts.  As an aside, I’m often struck by how rude people are when they go somewhere to buy a sandwich — it doesn’t cost anything to be pleasant with the people serving you!
  • Ask people about themselves — both because it’s good to be genuinely interested in the lives of other people, and because people like to share about themselves, so they often think (without realizing it) that the best conversations are the ones where people asked them to talk about themselves for most of the conversation
  • Don’t make big-money decisions quickly — my father used to take my sister or I car shopping randomly, years before we’d need a new year, both to help us understand how to talk to salespeople and negotiate, and so that when a car ever died on him, he long-ago knew what type of car they wanted to buy
  • Make sure your tie isn’t showing when you fold your collar down around it (the back of your dress shirt)
  • When you commit to something (like signing up to play T-Ball for a season), you were expecting to finish it — he loved to connect it to the concept of ‘following through’ when you swing a baseball bat.  You don’t stop half-way — you finish what you started.

I look back on so many things my father taught me over the years, and I am so thankful that he was my dad!

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