By Gregory Keer
My first grader came home recently with a completed assignment called, “When I Am 100 Years Old.” For it, he had drawn a picture of himself at the century mark, looking pretty much the way he does now, but with a long gray beard. Apparently, this is all it takes to distinguish a seven year old from a centenarian.
Under the picture was his life-topping accomplishment, “I will be a riter.”
In five words, my youngest son managed to reveal a treasure trove of insight. He told me his lifelong plans. He revealed that these schemes have to do with his connection to me, the guy he sees scribbling stories. And he showed he can’t spell worth diddlysquat.
This month marks my birthday. Because I am a “riter,” I’m spending time reflecting on how I’m doing goal-wise on my marchtoward (God willing) 100 years. There are areas I’m on target with, including keeping my marriage healthy, doing meaningful work, and making efforts on behalf of social causes. Among the aims I still want to achieve are learning to cook really well, playing at least one musical instrument, speaking Spanish, living in another city (if only for a season), and improving my free-throw shooting.
Above all, the category in which I’d like to improve most is fatherhood. It’s one reason I write these self-indulgent columns that chronicle the tinkering I do as a dad. While some of this labor is just me being nitpicky, a lot of it has to do with being better at following the biggest lesson I’ve learned about parenting – my children’s lives cannot be scripted. I cannot mold them in my image or in the image of someone I’d like them to be. I can give them plenty of good materials, but they have to craft themselves.
Having Ari say he wants to be a writer is nice now, but it’s likely he’ll do something different for a living. Ari loves to build stuff and take things apart to see what makes them tick. I have zero mechanical ability, so it’s hard for me to relate or even play alongside him when he reconfigures a door handle or surrounds his bed with various pulleys and other contraptions. My job is to let him horde boxes, tools, and various bits (which drives me nuts in that he keeps his room like a junk yard), so he can develop into who he wants to be. I’m fairly certain he will be some sort of engineer, though I’m trying to keep this kind of guessing to myself.
My middle son is most like me in his passions for writing stories, remembering lots of entertainment trivia, and having his feelings easily hurt. At the same time, his penchant for taking charge of situations and doing all his homework well ahead of schedule are far from my personal tendencies. Jacob currently thinks he’ll be an artist (architect, painter, or performer), while I imagine him becoming a creative businessman. Yet, he’s so full of interests and willingness to soak up information, he may be the kind of person who tries out a lot of things out. This could be difficult for making a consistent life, but it could also mean he’ll never be bored.
My 13 year old is the most open book of my three. He loves imaginative books, but prefers computers and science over discussing human nature. He doesn’t mind sports, though he veers away from competition. And he’s efficient at getting assignments done — when he feels it’s worth his time. As my eldest, he’s borne the brunt of my clumsiest parenting as I’ve pushed him the hardest on everything from studying more to maintaining better posture. Yet, this kid is more at ease than I ever was with a variety of friends and has a better sense of enjoying the world’s simple things. I worry he may lead a fairly modest life, but I’m confident he’ll rise to the level of happiness he wants for himself.
Too much of my early fatherhood years have been anchored in feeling I only have value if I show my sons the right way to do things. It’s often made me too intense in getting them to follow instructions and too judgmental of mistakes when I’ve warned them of pitfalls. All of this has been about making me more important to them than necessary.
For a dad – or any parent – that is a tough insight to internalize. I don’t know all the right answers, and even when I think I do, there is wisdom in keeping most of them to myself. Although I am bound by the parenting code that compels me to keep my kids safe and armed with good resources, I hope to mark the road to 100 with much more observing and cheerleading as my sons grow their own gray hairs.