Our guest blogger today is Michael Riddell, Australian author of the upcoming BQB release, “Life, a Little Brown Dog, and Shite Like That.”
Some say I’m still a kid and I can’t argue with that, particularly when I’m all busted up and broken after some brilliant plan of utter genius goes spectacularly wrong and I’m on the end of it. Usually it’s preceded by, “hey kids, look at me…”
Now, before I go too much further, I reckon the label ‘balance’ that appears in the heading sells the relationship we all want with our children way too short. Balance is such a staid and static term, describing some point where the wishes of one side is capped by the wishes of the other in some kind of stale, somewhat sterile partnership. So I’m going to ban the label balance cause I want my relationship with my children to be fun, vibrant, cosmopolitan, psychedelic and I don’t even know what those last two words mean!
I want respectfulness that goes both ways. Think of it as a vertical, multi-strand spiral; an updraft where each person positively benefits from the other. Well that’s what I reckon anyways.
So what does it take to be a good dad? Well, I can only tell you of my experience, both good and bad, the mistakes and the successes. Just as my journey with my kids is unique to me, every other parent’s journey is thankfully different, although I reckon the fundamentals are pretty much the same worldwide. And I’ve been blessed as I get to do it all over again in my second marriage, the lessons learned from the first time around well and truly seared into my very soul.
I know what it’s like working 12, sometimes 14 hours a day, then coming home to a child who refuses to sleep in her own bed for the first two years of her life. I tell you, it was a near miracle the second child came along!
I remember many times my daughter, Jessica, waking up for her 2 am feeding and though I really had good intentions of feeding her myself with the bottle, I just couldn’t open my eyes. In fact, I learned a good trick of waking but not opening my eyes, lying there all motionless, feigning sleep. And it worked, I’m not too proud to say.
As Jessica and my son, Daniel, grew, adventure was everywhere on the farm – often with disaster following closely behind. Trees to climb, rogue geese to fend, dogs to be wary of… and that’s on top of the snakes, spiders and the odd scorpion. It seems everything out our way either wants to sting, bite, kill or eat you, and I suppose that’s the richness of nature.
I reckon kids need to experience the richness of life to learn for themselves what works and what doesn’t – just as long as someone’s around to prevent them from making monumental mistakes that are difficult to recover from. Like playing with snakes on the railway tracks. Or at least, be there to pick them up and dry them off after they fall into something really bad, like an open sewer. And no one can prove it ever happened as I’ve subsequently paid off all the witnesses and vow a horrible vengeance if my brother ever talks about it. Besides, I’ve got plenty on him.
One of those lessons I find poignantly useful in life is to put myself in the other person’s shoes. This pearl of wisdom is one I didn’t use nearly enough with my kids. Really, all young un’s want is to have a safe and happy house, a loving family who takes an interest in them, good mates, huge dinners, a bit of fun on the side, a dash of adventure thrown in and something to break – just like I was. And am. But if they do accidentally break something, isn’t it better they break something material rather than having the trust between father and child scolded or beaten out of them?
When I went through depression in my late 40s, my counselor asked about my relationship with my father. “Was I always trying to live up to my father’s expectations?” She was shocked to find that, no, I strive because I wanted my father to be proud of me and make no mistake, he was. My father made no
over-the-top demands, he never unreasonably pushed me and he never, never expressed disappointment in me. My father was a great dad, unlike his dad who used to tell him he was the greatest disappointment in his life. My point is that these positive or negative reinforcements start early in the life of a child and they quickly become habitual.
Never forget that your children are a miniature version of you. With this in mind, I suppose it’s a lot easier to strike a great relationship with your children when you resonate with your child. That’s when you really connect by naturally liking the same things, but this gets tricky when you’re both not on the same level. How to overcome this?
Just look, listen, take notice and make them feel important. Encourage your children to ask you questions, to communicate in an open way without fear of ridicule or a sharp, terse response. If they do become fearful of you by way of physical or mental abuse, then all is lost.
My grandfather on my maternal side used to party with some mates and my then four year-old brother, Mark, would come up to Pa and try to talk to him. And bless him, Pa would tell his mates to pipe down because “my little man is talking to me,” making Mark feel he was important. That he was actually being listened to and not brushed off, as I’ve seen a lot of fathers do in the same circumstance. A good habit formed. Needless to say, both my brother and I resonated with Pa famously.
Being a dad is eerily similar to being a leader, and the best leaders seem to bring the most out of their people by not flogging them relentlessly, telling exactly what to do and how to do it. Rather, these wise leaders simply get results by showing what needs to be done and the best way is leading by example – by being a figure of inspiration. Leading with more carrot than stick, because if your kids are like mine, they simply cannot be told. I remember telling the two eldest kids my pearls of wisdom when they were very young. Jessica and Daniel would cover their ears with their hands and run around the place in ever decreasing circles yelling out “lecture alert, lecture alert” and thinking they’re funny as anything. (Which they were and all I could do was laugh with them.) But I get some back when I say, “I told you so” as I’m carting them off to the hospital all bloodied and busted after experiencing the richness of life up close and personal. It’s a shallow victory, but a victory nonetheless and with my kids, I’ll be taking one any way I can.
I’ve never wanted to dominate nor excessively control my children. I want the passion for life to burn brightly in their souls, to grow up as individuals standing in their own power but of course there are the times they overstep the mark, which is quite normal and an essential part of the learning process. I’ve found you need to be firm where you draw any lines that should never be crossed, though not excessively rigid. Show them love, but just remember, you are never the doormat and your children should never walk over you.
I’ve found it useless to use a threat (unless you’re prepared to carry out the threat), so it pays not to make the threats too harsh. Be realistic. Because at some point, kids will either rebel at the harsh treatment as a result of implementing the threat or they will take you for granted when you don’t. As I say, I desire respectfulness that goes both ways.
Either way, they will not communicate, they will not let you know what is going on in their lives until it’s too late and they’ve fallen into that sewer. The best time to establish this good habit is very early in life and one of the best ways I’ve found to achieve this is luckily also the simplest. Just say “I love you” when you leave to go to work. Just say “I love you” when you’re saying goodbye on the phone. Just say “I love you” when the moment begs. And this is habit-forming for both you and your child.
When Daniel was just out of nappies, he’d push the limits of my tolerance and I say good on him for that. But I was cunning. I had a plan. You see, at the time, I found myself managing a cotton farm and this farm had a densely vegetated swamp the size of several football fields next to the house and we have a pump at the swamp’s edge to water the cotton. The swamp was full of tall reeds, scrub and trees and pigs and birds and other stuff that swamps are made of and the noise coming out of that place I swear are not of this earthly plane. The hair on the back of your neck would stand up on some mornings. Anyway, I told Daniel there’s this Swamp Monster living there, (as any normal dad would), and if he doesn’t behave, well, I’ll just have to tie him up to the Swamp Pump as Swamp Monster dinner. I lovingly labelled the swamp monster Stanley so as to make him not quite so fearsome and formidable, but I threw some old cattle and pig bones round the pump just to increase the sense of occasion and make it more life-like. Or dead-like.
Daniel wasn’t real keen on that idea, not one bit, but he put me to the test one night when we were coming home from town. So I stopped the car when we drove past the swamp pump and I got a length of rope out of the trunk and went to open Daniel’s door. I could see the color draining out of his sweet and innocent little cherub face as he quickly locked his door. Instant good behavior and it works like a charm, don’t worry about that. I reckon every family should have a Swamp Monster handy to threaten delinquent children. Just make sure you follow it up with plenty of love.
On a more serious note and to underscore how vitally important it is to have an open, honest relationship with the kids, I want to share a story involving my middle daughter from my second marriage. Even though she’s older than subject matter I’ve talked about earlier, the fundamentals are exactly the same, so I’m going to tell it.
My middle daughter was on the cusp of being sexually active with her boyfriend. She had not yet turned 14. Because my wife Melinda encouraged her to be open and honest from the get go, even while she was still in nappies, she was happy enough to discuss the subject in a full and frank way, showing maturity beyond her years and you cannot get better than that.
Now, Melinda and I could’ve handled this in a number of ways. Short of shooting the boy, or at least an attempted castration, we decided they were going to do it no matter what. So rather than doing it in a car or somewhere else equally dodgy, we wanted them to be in a loving environment – our home.
I reckon this took a bit of guts from everyone involved and you know what? This actually brought us closer together. A positive outcome for all. An updraft.
So to being yourself. You’ve got to be comfortable with who you are, warts and all and I’m here to tell you I’ve got some pretty big warts I never knew I had. But I’m comfortable at being me, even though my family at times isn’t all that comfortable with me being me (particularly when I’m in a playful mood). I reckon the cornerstone of being comfortable with yourself is being grateful for just being alive as being dirty on yourself is only a short step away from being dirty on others and then the world in general. A big part of being grateful is expressing unconditional love for yourself in a humble way and this will manifest in the ability to genuinely forgive oneself for past indiscretions, yet you seem to need these very indiscretions when living life to get to this point and all of this is part of the richness of life.
Acknowledging these indiscretions does not mean sweeping them under the carpet. No way. It means bringing these rotting corpses hidden within the depths of your soul out into the light where any power they have over you simply vanishes. You begin to heal, moving forward in a positive rewired way without the baggage of past mistakes. I know I have and I’ll tell you how I came to believe this if you choose to read on. During those horror years of depression, it dawned on me this unconditional love equally applies to me. I need to love myself for who I am, warts and all. For what I am. For the good stuff I’ve done in my life, then forgive myself for the not so good stuff. It’s then a short easy step to radiate this outwards and the first port of call seems to be always your family.
And at the end of the day, it really is all about the love with your wife and children. You want to be in that updraft. You want to be in harmony with your children. You both want to grow in yourselves, to stand in your own power cause just as kids never stop growing in their mind, body and soul, neither do Dads.