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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.