Dear Dad, You’re Doing It All Wrong (A Letter to Myself)


Photo Credit: Andrey Zhukov via Compfight cc

Dear Dad,

You’re doing it all wrong.

Eleven years ago, the doctors handed you a little, pink bundle of vulnerability. You were twenty-six years old, and you walked out of the hospital entirely responsible for a brand new human being. A whole person. As if that were a totally sane thing to let you do. It scared you. They eventually handed you two more little people. It was supposed to get a little easier each time.

It didn’t.

You never got less afraid. You never got more certain about how to be a dad. So you decided to make it up along the way. You can stop feeling bad about that—it’s what everybody else is doing, too. The problem is, you improvised by listening to the voices in the world around you, instead of listening to the voice coming from the world within you. You can forgive yourself for that, too. The voices around you are loud and persuasive.

They told you achievement matters most. So you stressed about school districts and kindergarten homework and guitar recitals. You secretly kept score in your head at first grade soccer games. You thought scoring goals was the goal of life.

But can you remember?

Can you remember what it was like to be just a few years out of diapers and to score a goal on the soccer field? You didn’t care about the score and you didn’t start planning for your future soccer scholarship. No, you whipped your head around to be sure they were looking. The real goal was to be seen. The real goal was to have someone to celebrate with.

Dad, you can stop spending all your time trying to get them into school, and you can start taking the time to walk them to school.

They told you good parents give their kids great experiences. So you turned yourself into an event planner and an amateur chauffeur. You signed them up for camps, sampled extracurricular activities like a smorgasbord, and went to every possible program and event. You went to Legoland because you thought you had to. And then you wondered why the kids were tired and cranky and unhappy.

Outward experience is where we find thrills, but inward experience is where we find a home.

Dad, your kids don’t need you to help them live the fullest life; they need you to help them find the deepest life. You don’t have to show them the world; you just have to listen to the world going on inside of them.

They gave you technology and told you to give it to your kids. So you threw technology at the kids, because you didn’t trust it would be enough to throw a ball with them. Yet, notice how they meltdown when a device is taken away from them—they want more because it leaves them hungry for the thing they truly need. They can’t connect with a Kindle. An iPod can’t help them feel like they are okay and everything will be okay. Only a parent can do that.

Not with a bunch of presents, but with a bunch of presence.

Dear Dad, I just watched a movie that ended with this line: “We don’t seize the moment, the moments seize us.” Dad, you’re doing it all wrong. Stop trying to seize every moment. Stop trying to make your children’s lives extraordinary. Instead, allow every ordinary moment to seize you. Your kids’ lives are unfolding one moment at a time, and the thing they want most is also the thing they need most.

They want you to be a witness. To their passing moments.

They want you to pay attention. To their fleeting lives.

Dad, it may be just another hurried Tuesday morning to you, but to them it’s another morning to wonder if you notice. Another morning to wonder if they’ll have a place to belong. Another morning to wonder if they are beloved. Another morning to wonder about the purpose of this one wild life. Another morning for you to join them in all of their becoming. Another morning in which you are the most important man they know.

I’m guessing that may be a little overwhelming.

Be overwhelmed, Dad.

Let the moments roll over you and be overwhelmed by the sacredness and transience of every single one. Pay attention like their lives depend upon it, because they feel like their lives do depend upon it.

Be still. Notice. Join.

In the end, Dad, it may be the only part of being a dad that really matters.

With love,


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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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44 thoughts on “Dear Dad, You’re Doing It All Wrong (A Letter to Myself)

  1. Thank you for this. My little guy is going on 16 months old and there is nothing I love more than getting to spend time with him, to sit in the sandpit because that is where he wants me to be, to be dragged around by my finger because he needs me to be in a different place to the one I was standing in, to simply stand and hold him so that he can be tall enough to reach the lemons or peaches or simply to be able to see over the wall and be a part of all that is going on in the world outside the garden. I often worry about wanting too much for him, not from him – for him. I worry if I will be able to offer him everything he needs and deserves. Having read this makes me feel though that maybe I am actually doing alright, I just have to remember to never get too busy trying to do things with him to just BE with him!

    • David, this was beautiful. And I think you’re right: make time to let him pull you around by the finger, and you’ll be doing just fine.

  2. This is an absolutely beautiful reflection on what is most important about parenting. Thank you for the blessing that you are, Kelly!

    • What is the best compliment a writer can receive? Thanks for that, Rena, I’m glad it resonated so deeply!

  3. “Presence” and “by example” are key I believe for sure. Well we do push the committment to high level sports etc… the time spent and conversations to & from have been building blocks for our situation. I’m still struggling on the “by example” in some dept’s (fitness), its humbling and a chance to let them know we are not super-parents and still learning ourselves while…making some good mistakes along the way.

    • Absolutely, Jeff. They don’t need us to be perfect. They just need us to be aware we’re not perfect.

  4. That letter was wonderful. It reminded me of my daughter at 4, and the rat race I signed her up for, dance, soccer, t-ball. We ran and ran from one to another and she disliked every bit of it. I wanted for her what I never got and all she wanted was more time with me and away from all the extra sensory input that was driving her nuts. Now days, she climbs the big oak tree in the front yard and enjoys just being at home or the part with us.
    Her neurologist told me once…that an A+ is great, but a B+ isn’t to shabby either. Sometimes we need to listen to our hearts and not the neighbors. Great post for Dad and us Mom’s too.

  5. Yep! It seems like more and more, everything old, becomes new again (thankfully!). The less we give our children, the more they have…..

  6. Well said and beautifully written. What I didn’t do right as a parent I am working very hard to make up for with my grandchildren. I love just being present with them as their lives unfold in front of me and with me. And more than anything they just love to cuddle up with me and read a book or tell me about their day…a true treasure!

    • Jack, one of the most heartwarming things is grandparents who have embraced the things they wish they had done differently as parents and redeem it in their relationships with their grandchildren. Good for you. And them!

    • Thanks, Jen. The quote at the end of the post is from “Boyhood.” Particularly with boys of 19 and 15, it might be meaningful to you.

  7. This post reminded me of the Cat Steven’s song, the Cat’s in the Cradle. As a mom who’s oldest turned 18 yesterday, I am most grateful for the closeness we have as she flies out into the world. That is something I will never be sorry about. Did she get to all her dance lessons when she was a kid? I have no freaking idea. But I know we have so much more right now. That, to me, is priceless.

    • Awesome, Christina. I want to be able to say that on the eighteenth birthday. Thanks for letting me know it’s possible!

  8. Great insight! HOWEVER . . . you didn’t address the MOST vital and important part of kids’ growing up – the spiritual aspect and how a personal relationship with The Most High affects every part of their being and well-being.

    Have they (you) applied advice from the wisest man in the world? See what Solomon said in Proverbs 3:5&6.

    Have they (you) memorized key scriptures that build faith, character, knowledge, and understanding for the rest of their lives?

    By ignoring the spiritual part, you cut off the part you should start with. Without it, they’re running on 2 cylinders of a living, breathing 8 cylinder engine!

  9. I know this is a letter to “Dad” but as a mom let me just say it spoke straight to my heart. I am a mother of 4 children ages 21, 19, 17, and 3. When I became a mother at 20 I thought I knew everything. My kids had everything the wanted and to the outside world they looked happy. After a messy divorce 6 years ago. I realized how unhappy my kids were on the inside. I was blessed to meet a man who showed me what unconditional love really is. The two of us were blessed with a little boy three years ago. We both made a promise to be more involved in his life. Not by doing the things we did with our other children (he has a 27,26, and 24 year old) but to just simply be present in his life. We listen more and validate what he has to say. Instead of using because we said so when he asks a question be try to answer his questions with real answers. We in courage is imagination. Cute little story….just this last week the two of us went on a little road trip an 8 hour drive to visit my mom. We stopped at a rest area and I just let him run and explore. We were there maybe 15min. When I told him it was time to go he jumped in the car and let out a big sigh and said “That was awesome” I just smiled and realized at that moment. It truly isn’t about where you take them it is about just being with them and being just excited as they are.

    • Absolutely, Donna. As a dad, a letter to dad is the only letter I can write to myself, but the ideas in it certainly do apply to both parents.

  10. Thank you again for a great posting. My ‘kids’ are about 50 now, and I so wish I had known this other way of bringing them up. We also made it all about the ‘doing’, made sure they had all the educational etc. opportunities in life to SUCCEED! Big ouch. It is awful what we impose on them. They were pushed to go to University. The big thing we did not do, and knew nothing about at the time, was to learn to go within, and know from there what the truth was. Of course, we didn’t do it ourselves either. I accept we knew no better, and did what we thought was our best at the time.

    It has been a great journey for me – now, to the best of my ability, I try to live from that wonderful place within. Still a big learning curve, but I see my role now, to just live from that to the best of my ability, and they can see from that how I am such a different person now. No more stress, striving, learning to be in the BEINGNESS, a truly wonderful, joyful place. From there, I know what needs to be done, and my connections with people are now awesome. Taking time with family who are so used to how I used to be and are a bit confused now.

    • Beverley, this is an awesome reflection. I love how you have had the courage to take an inward journey and to let it speak for itself. It sounds like you are modeling for them now what you didn’t know to model for them earlier.

      • I agree, I have learned not to tell them what to do, but to the best of my ability to be with myself, be love, and let them see there is another way to live life. Whenever the grandsons talk about their futures etc. (elder 2 now at Uni) I just tell them to do what they really would love to do, main thing is to do what you love, and enjoy that, not just do courses for the prestige, money etc. But, it is up to them all to make their own choices.

  11. Lovely.
    I am in love with moments– and the ones with my kid are my favorites of all.
    Bless you for validating our dramatically underscheduled life.

    • May we all aspire to a “dramatically underscheduled life,” and may we all fall “in love with moments.” You have a way with words, Shel.

  12. Hit the fathering nail on my bald head; it’s a real fight sometimes to not try and engineer what we think should be our kids moments. But now, the really important question: how does Instagram fit in to these moments? 😉

    • Ha! It never fails that we’ll be in the midst of a great moment and when I tell the kids to pause and pose for the camera, they rebel and won’t do it. It’s like they have a built in anti-Instagram mechanism.

  13. Thank you for some wonderful nuggets of wisdom drawn from your recollection of parenting experience. Blessings.

  14. True words. And true for dad or mom. Hard to remember, apply, and live out with clarity in the noisy demands of the world. But worth the effort. Thank you for the beautifully written reminder.

  15. I absolutely loved this post. I have been in therapy for about 1 year now untangling my past, learning about boundaries, self care, values, assertiveness, happiness, etc. This has been a long time coming. I grew up in a house where doing well in school was #1. But, there was no learning about our emotions, love, turning toward each other, values, boundaries, etc. This has led me to make some poor decisions for me. The birth of my son (now 2.5) changed everything for me. I was so anxious about making a mistake with him. This anxiety led me to my therapist where I discovered that I didn’t know so, so, so much! I see life completely differently now. We are hardwired for connection and feeling connected has brought me so much peace and joy. My son will learn what he needs to when he goes to school. He will learn how to use a computer. He will learn how to read and write. Right now, I just want to spend time with him, have fun with him, laugh with him, play with him, teach him about boundaries, and taking care of yourself….develop a bond with him where he knows that he is connected to me and others, that others love and care for him, and that he can trust in the goodness of the world. This kind of life is so different from the one that I grew up in….but it feels so much better.

  16. I’m a mom of a 2.5 year old and your letter to the Dad is relevant to a mom too. Thank you for giving words to worries, feelings and thoughts that all parents have but can’t find the time or presence to write and acknowledge.

  17. Kelly, thank you for this cry for help from men … it made me weep about my dad who tried sincerely to be the best husband and father, and he was in many many ways, wearing himself out in the process. However he was trying so hard that he was not really there to ‘meet’ us and that’s what my tears were about … I just wanted to connect with him and his beautiful warm heart, more often than the occasional few times a year.

    I’m connected with an amazing group who have just launched a website and here’s one of the articles from it that is complementary to this topic which you may like to read; I invite you to then explore the site further …

    Thank you again for this heartfelt blog, much appreciated.

  18. Didn’t have this experience. We were members of Calvary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach when our children were born. We had the benefit of older, experienced, caring parents to guide us in parenthood. It was a great time with many good memories.

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