Not all men who have fathered a child are dads. Being a dad—an honest to goodness, authentic, true and bona fide dad—means much more than genetic parentage.
In the first place, a dad is a friend—even when it’s not convenient. For instance, one morning I went down to the lake near my home to watch the fishermen. There, fishing along the rocky bank, were old men with skinny, hairless legs protruding from faded denim pants; young boys with their shirts off, laughing, casting their lines frequently; large women, patiently engulfing their small wicker chairs; all types and sizes of outdoorsmen.
Among them sat a large and muscular man. And straddling his massive knee with spindly legs was a small girl, dishwater pigtails falling from under a straw hat. The girl had both hands wrapped around a long cane pole. One of his hands covered both of hers, while the other rested on his knee. The two of them sat there quietly, watching a red and white bubble bob in the water a few feet from shore.
His open tackle box displayed the gear of an experienced fisherman: flies and plugs for bass, trolling gear for lake trout, and a large assortment of streamers to lure the wily German Brown.
But today it was mudcats.
That large man with the little girl on his lap was a dad. He cared enough about his daughter to spend time with her on her terms, not his. He didn’t take her fishing so he could go fishing; he went fishing so he could be with her, to do something she would enjoy doing.
That’s one way to separate the fathers-in-name-only from the dads. Too many men are willing to be a dad only when the children are going an adult direction or when they share the same interests, hobbies, or skills. But a true dad builds a relationship that includes the child’s own interests and level of understanding.
One father I know used to spend an hour a day with his boy, playing basketball. On the surface that seems admirable—until you realize that it was the father, not the son, who loved the sport. This father’s childhood dream was to be a basketball star. He never made it. And so, because he wanted his boy to succeed where he had failed, they drilled on the basketball court every day.
The son did become a star—a high school all-star and a college hero. But while gaining a star, the father lost a son. Instead of building a healthy relationship, their time together actually drove father and son further apart.
The quality of the time parents spend with their children is as important as the time itself. When parents become rigid or demanding in order to gratify their own egos, or for any selfish motive, they destroy the very relationship they are trying to build. And being a friend to children doesn’t mean, of course, that dads need to be silly or immature. Children must also learn to respect their parents as the competent adults they have become.
Another requirement of dadhood is that quality which blends authority and unconditional love to make dad both a respected authority and a loved companion to youth. Most fathers do all right on the stern side of this balance. Of course, it takes a little sternness at times to preside over frolicking preadolescents and presumptuous teenagers. But real dads realize that rules are made for the benefit and progress of the children, not for their condemnation. There is a time to be stern and a time to show love, perhaps even a time to bend the rules once the lesson is learned.
Take, for example, one situation I remember where a dad—call him Bob—had to have an especially large amount of wisdom. Larry, Bob’s oldest boy, had just obtained a driver’s license. Bob had established rules for the use of the family car, such as obeying the law, driving safely, and returning home on time. Disobedience meant forfeiture of the car’s use for two weeks.
The week of the junior prom, however, Larry received a ticket for speeding. There was a decision to be made, and not an easy one. Would Larry remember the lesson better if he were denied the use of the car for the prom? Would he become more responsible if he had to pay such a high price for disobedience? Or would he become resentful and rebellious, thus defeating the purpose of the rule?
Bob struggled with the dilemma for a couple of days. And then from somewhere way back in his own memory he recalled the significance of driving your own car to the junior prom. He postponed the start of the two-week penalty until the day after the dance.
Bob bent the rule, a rule that he himself had made. But by being flexible he established something greater than fear and power—love and respect. Both father and son learned the lesson taught by the apostle Paul: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6.)
True dads must also be an ideal for children to look up to. In a society where drugs sometimes have become a substitute for character, where some politicians seem to be bought and sold on a daily basis, and where a father’s role in the family has been eroded, children need, more than ever, a solid example of male virtue and honor. A father whose example is consistent with the precepts he teaches can do more to influence the lives of youngsters than almost any other factor.
To a boy, a dad should be a goal, a potential achievement. And to a girl, a dad should be the hope of things to come, the model for a future dad for her own children.
It’s not easy to be a dad. It requires the dedication and fortitude of an army general and the patience of a saint. You’ll find dads splashing around in the baby pool at the city park, throwing a dollar’s worth of Ping Pong balls to win a twenty-five cent goldfish at the carnival, and poised on hard chairs at piano recitals. You will even discover them changing a diaper, or telling soothing stories during a midnight thunderstorm.
And when the chips are down, you’ll see them with an arm around the hunched shoulders of a boy who sat out the whole game on the bench, or sitting in the ice cream parlor over chocolate sundaes with a girl just a little too young to accept a date to the school dance.
Whatever the price, there is no glory, no distinction, no award that will ever dethrone the title of Dad. When a man becomes a dad, he has already received one of the highest honors bestowed on man.