Saturday, September 27, 2008

Self Help for Dads

Becoming a Dad was the single most life changing event in my life. Graduating college, buying my first home and even getting married have had less impact on who I am than welcoming my children into the world. Before, in my life, I lived for myself. My goals were directed for my best interest. I was only responsible for myself. I had to start considering someone else when I got married, but my choices basically involved the best outcome for us as one couple.

The day our son arrived, ten years ago, was the day I started living for another. I now had someone completely dependent upon me and my choices. From then on, choices I made for myself may have not always been the best choices for my son. I had now been changed to a different person. Or better yet, I had been improved into a better person.

Being a Dad for the first time involved a lot of on the job training. Our son taught me how to feed, bathe and change a baby. As he grew, he presented more tests and challenges for me. He dared me to keep in shape by chasing him around the house. He tested my patience endlessly and taught me to anticipate how messy a situation could become based on my choices of food. When he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at two and half years old, I experienced a complete attitude overhaul. Asperger's is a form of Autism that causes kids to struggle with social cues, peer relationships and certain sensory challenges.

This diagnosis changed the way I thought of my son. But don't misunderstand me, I didn't change any important goals I had for him. I still expected him to be successful and give his best effort. I still wanted him to live up to his full potential. He was still the great, loving miracle we always had. The only thing that changed was how I saw myself as his Dad. I still gave him tools to accomplish his goals, I just had to learn how to use a different set of tools. I was required to see things from his perspective and adjust my parenting accordingly.

When our son turned four years old, I was comfortable in my abilities and talents to bring up a happy, successful son.

Then his sister came into the picture. She lived by a completely different playbook from her brother. Where he was a good sleeper and napper, she was up all day and night. Things that worked well for him, she would have none of. My confidence as a parent dropped to zero. Time for another learning curve.

My daughter started her Dad lessons almost immediately. Our son must have known early on that I was new to Daddying, in that he was much more patient and content with my efforts. My daughter knew that I had had four years to get ready for her and she wasn't going to wait a second longer for anything she needed. Time get a bigger toolbox.

I continued my parenting school through the next few years. My son was attending grade school and my daughter was in preschool. I had to learn how much freedom and independence to give them and balance it with the right amount of protection. I had to learn not to compare and measure my kids against other kids their age. I am not in competition with other Dads. My kids are competing against themselves. And I am there to support them and be their biggest cheerleader.

Right now, my kids are my investment in myself. It's like I went to the self-improvement section of the bookstore and came out with two self-help aids. In order to get the most out of them, I have to learn how to use them correctly. Luckily, part of their job is to teach their operators how to handle them. Just let them teach you. A Dad has to get down on their level and see the world from their perspective. Only then can he truly understand what it means to be a Dad. My toolbox is constantly being revised. New tools added and old ones retired. Dad training is lifelong and gruelling. But a more rewarding upgrade, you will never find.

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I'm a 40 year old dad of two. My wonderful wife, Lady Di, and I try to keep the kids from blowing things up here in central Minnesota.