By Gregory Keer
Ten years ago, I was getting woozy as I stared at the proof pages of a magazine I was editing. It was 4am. 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 was absent for in that week alone. In just a few days, I had broken most of the important rules I set for myself as a father.
It took me a while to change my ways (and eventually get a different job). Not to sound too much like an infomercial, but I did it by coming up with “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 occasions 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 that 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 youngest son used to hover around my home-office, waiting to play with me at my work cut-off time. After a run of days 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 technology (emails 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 kids say they no longer like Chinese food). Children don’t give us grades or 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
If you don’t jog regularly, your muscles forget what they’re supposed to do and bark back in pain. Similarly, if you don’t keep up regular parenting activities, it’s hard to build much strength in the relationships with your children. 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. If you leave before the kids go to school, put a note in their lunch or call them from work before they go. You can even email or text your older kids each afternoon, just to check in. Phone calls and emails 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.
4. You Shall Hug a Lot
Men are notoriously stereotyped as undemonstrative. That’s often correct. If you are this way, consider the cliché of a hug a day. Kids need touch for security and love. Getting a hug — maybe more than one and throw a couple of 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 simple idea: 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 10-year-old sometimes 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. When my buddy Sang had his first child, he was working crazy hours 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.
Honestly, it remains a challenge for me to follow these “commandments” to the letter, but it does help me to stay focused on some rules I truly believe in. Try some of these ideas our and/or make up some of your own. The important thing to remember is that there is no higher authority than your own fatherly voice that says the time you spend with your children is precious enough to set in stone.