A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

If you’ve had a toddler in your house at any time in the past 40 years you’ve probably heard of Alexander. His terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is the topic of an award-winning children’s book that teaches kids how to cope when they have one of those days when everything goes wrong. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, gets pushed in the mud, is forced to eat lima beans for dinner and watches a favorite marble go down the drain during bath-time. Alexander decides to move to Australia until his mother explains that everyone has bad days, even people who live in Australia.


Alexander’s mom is right, isn’t she? We all have bad days. On those days when we have the reverse Midas touch–everything we touch turns to crap–we can choose to react with grace and equanimity. Or we can choose to react like Alexander (who as a small child may have a legitimate excuse). How did you react to your last terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Let’s say you reacted badly, like Alexander and children often do. Now imagine that your embarrassing, child-like temper tantrum makes national news.

That’s the sticky situation in which James Beach placed himself last week. He was tired. All he wanted to do was to fly home to Colorado. Employed by a company that builds waste-recycling plants, he was on the final leg of a long business trip back from Moscow. Maybe the Russian airport authorities had been less than friendly to the American businessman. Maybe the ticket agent at the Newark airport was a bit surly when Beach arranged to fly standby back home to Denver. Maybe his bags ended up in Naples instead of Newark. What we do know is that Beach ended up in a middle seat on the Newark-to-Denver flight. We also know that instead of closing his eyes and resting while the plane winged its way toward the Rockies, he put his tray-table down and pulled out his laptop. He had to review that contract with the Russians. To make sure he wasn’t disturbed, he installed the Knee Defender, a device that prevented the passenger in front of Beach from reclining her seat. Except she was tired too. And she really, really wanted to recline her seat. Conflict ensued.

At the request of the flight attendants, Beach removed the device. He claims the other passenger then forcefully reclined her sear, almost shattering his laptop’s screen. That’s when Beach started acting like Alexander. He roughly returned the seat-back to the full-upright position and re-installed his Knee Defender. His fellow passenger reacted like an Alexandra: she threw a cup of soda in his face. The flight attendant quickly moved the woman to another seat, but Beach didn’t stop. He re-directed his ire toward the flight attendants, saying what he says were “bad words”. The pilot then re-directed the plane to Chicago where Beach and his fellow passenger were re-directed off the plane. (No word on whether they shared cocktails at an O’Hare bar.) Beach was not going to get home to Denver that night after all.

Then his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day got even worse. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it nationally. Beach instantly became the poster-boy for bad airline-passenger behavior. Years ago Andy Warhol warned us that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 seconds. Beach was getting his 15 seconds–and then some.

What would I do if my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day was splashed over headlines all across the country? Would I accept responsibility for my bad behavior? I could do worse than follow the example of James Beach. In a follow-up story, Beach didn’t trash his on-board adversary. He didn’t make excuses about frayed nerves from a long business trip. Instead he told the Associated Press: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened. I could have handled it so much better.”

Careful readers of this blog will note, however, that Beach’s response wasn’t perfect. He could have used his 15 seconds of fame to give us all an A+ acceptance-of-responsibility lesson. How about these suggestions, Mr. Beach?

  • “Happened” is an acceptance-of-responsibility red flag. Blizzards happen. Cyclones happen. They’re no ones fault. What went down on that Newark to Denver flight did not just happen. It’s something you did. Would it have been better to say this? “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what I did.” Or better yet: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed that I did the same thing to my fellow passenger that she did to me: forcefully re-position her seat. And then I made things worse by yelling and swearing at the flight attendants. They were just doing their job and trying to clean up the mess that I had helped to create.”
  • And how about an apology to your fellow passenger? An apology does not mean that the person to whom I’m apologizing was without fault. That’s because an apology is not about what she did; it’s about what I did. She need not earn my apology with an acknowledgment of her part in this sorry episode. I need to apologize for what I did wrong, even if she never steps up and takes her fair share of the blame. It’s about me and what I did.
  • And of course an “I’m so sorry” is needed for the flight attendants who were only trying to make everyone of the crowded flight as comfortable as possible.

I’ll give him a B-. And the lesson for me when I have that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and “lose it” like little Alexander and James Beach–especially if I “lose it” in front of a national audience–is to step up and forthrightly accept responsibility for it. That means admitting what I did without excuse or finger-pointing, apologizing to anyone I’ve wronged, and doing what I can to make things right.


We Are Not Responsible

not responsible

We were driving down the Interstate at 70 MPH. (OK, maybe it was 72 or 73.) Just ahead of us was a dump truck with a big sign on the back. I pulled a bit closer so I could read it, assuming that if a sign was posted on the back of a truck, the sign contained important information for anyone following the truck. This is what the sign said:

Not responsible for objects falling from truck

I immediately slowed, trying to put some distance between us and the truck. But not fast enough. A clump of dirt landed with a thud on the windshield. Thankfully, it caused no damage.

First, I caught my breath and tried to will my heart down to my normal 65 beats a minute. Then I considered the irony of the sign’s placement: one could read the sign disclaiming responsibility for falling objects only if one got close enough to be at risk of damage from debris sailing out of the truck’s bed. Finally, I wondered if the truck owner’s attempt to absolve himself of liability for careless conduct would catch on and become a trend. I considered the possibilities.

Is there anyone who hasn’t seen their share of those we-are-not-responsible signs posted in retail establishments across the country. How about this sign in a restaurant: “Watch your hat and coat! We are not responsible for stolen or damaged clothing.” Or this sign at the dry cleaners: “Not responsible for damage to suede or leather.” How about this sign at a motel pool: “Swim at your own risk.”

It’s bad enough that stores turn somersaults trying to lure you inside to take your money and then once you’re inside they engage in even more contortions to avoid liability for any bad thing that might happen to you while they’ve got you inside. I suppose once I finally get a thumbs-up from the restaurant hostess that she can seat me and my wife, I can turn around and walk right out once I see the sign telling me that the place assumes no responsibility to care for my personal items while I’m paying them big money for a meal. I suppose I also have a choice to pack up my family and check out of a motel–a motel that lured us in with the promise of a swimming pool–once the kids and I are about to jump in the pool and I see that the place is assuming no responsibility for our safety while we use the pool that they built and maintain. It’s not much of a choice, but I guess I do have a choice.

But what about that dump truck? Do I really have the ability to make a choice to avoid harm from the truck owner’s failure to cover the load and protect me and other motorists from falling-object damage? Not really. Can one free oneself from the duty to take reasonable care to protect others from a danger one creates simply by posting a sign that disclaims any such duty?

So, will the truck owner’s attempt to absolve himself of liability for careless conduct catch on? If the attempt to extend the we-are-not-responsible principle becomes a trend, I can see all sorts of avoidance-of-responsibility possibilities. Maybe I can get a sign myself and attach it to the rear of my car:

Not responsible for careless, reckless or drunken driving

If that works I may get another sign and attach it to the back of my shirt:

Not responsible for thoughtless, hurtful or slanderous remarks

And perhaps my Facebook page could announce to all the world:

Not responsible for unwise, ill-considered or malicious choices

I’m not sure what those signs would do for those people who are forced to come in contact with me in the course of a day, but it sure would make my life a whole lot easier.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? When I post a sign on the back of my dump truck telling the world I’m not responsible for any damage to you or your car from junk flying out of the back of my truck, it makes my life easier. I no long have to buy a tarp to cover the load. I no long have to train my driver to firmly secure the tarp to the truck bed. My life gets easier–and less expensive too! But it exposes the public to a danger which it cannot reasonably avoid. Life gets a little harder, a little more dangerous for everyone but me.

Hear the words of one of the great philosophers of our age:

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.
–Winnie the Pooh

If, instead of looking for ways to avoid responsibility for our conduct, we take reasonable care to protect others, the world becomes not only a safer place but also a friendlier and more civilized place. That makes all the difference.

Freedom from Consequences?

Talking about an old guy with a long beard is nothing new at Christmas. What’s new during the 2013 holiday season is that the big-bearded senior citizen who has Facebook in a froth is not Santa Claus; it’s Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. For those who have been living in a cave since Christmas 2012, Robertson is the patriarch of a backwoods Louisiana clan that transformed their tiny duck-call manufacturing business into a media sensation. Duck Dynasty, a reality show entering its fifth season on the A&E cable network, follows the antics of Robertson’s family as it teeters on the brink of disintegration but pulls itself together by the end of each episode with a big sit-down dinner at the home of Phil and his wife, Miss Kay. (A recent episode featured a feud between two of their sons. CEO Willie insisted that all employees wear company uniforms. His brother Jase resisted and led employees out onto a protest picket line. Miss Kay put an end to the squabble by sitting her two sons down and giving them a lecture about the importance of family.) Duck Dynasty is the most popular reality show in cable-TV history.

One of the keys to the show’s popularity is the Robertson family’s no-excuses embrace of Bible-Belt Christianity. Another is their tendency to forthrightly express their opinions. And it was the combination of those two that got Phil Robertson in duck doo-doo with the suits at A&E. In an interview with GQ, the patriarch spoke his mind* without the political-correctness filter that A&E imposes on his show.  He is a self-professed “Bible-thumper” who believes that the Bible is clear on this point: homosexuality is sinful. But he believes the Bible is also clear on this: it’s not his job to judge gay people, just to love them into repentance.

We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?

When Robertson’s words hit the media, half the nation thought he was a homophobe who has no business on a national TV show and the other half considered him a courageous Christian who’s being persecuted for stating Biblical truth. A&E–shocked that its fundamentalist Christian star expressed fundamentalist Christian views–pushed the panic button. This is the heart of the network’s statement:

We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.

Those who champion Phil’s cause cry: “First Amendment!”, saying A&E is denying the Duck Dynasty patriarch his freedom of speech. But freedom of speech has never meant freedom from the consequences of one’s speech. If one chooses to exercise one’s rights, one must be willing to accept responsibility for that choice and not whine about the consequences. Consider these points:

  • The First Amendment protects us only from government action. This is what it says: “Congress shall make no law  …  abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; … .” Congress–judicially interpreted to mean any instrumentality of a government–can’t tell me what I can or can’t say. But the First Amendment doesn’t have much to say about the ability of my boss to fire me if I say something to offend millions of his customers. A&E has some freedom to control who appears on its network, including the ability to keep someone off its network if that person chooses to say something that is offensive to A&E or in A&E’s view is offensive to its viewers. And by taking a reported $200,000 from A&E for each episode, Phil and the rest of the Duck Dynasty cast have given A&E some control over who gets to appear in the show and what they say on–or off–the show.
  • Real freedom means not only the ability to make a choice but also the willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of that choice. We say “freedom isn’t free”, but that doesn’t just mean that men and women died to keep us free, it means that the exercise of freedom involves taking risks and accepting consequences.  Freedom without responsibility is cheap freedom, phony freedom. Despite the laws that white men enacted to keep them oppressed, Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Nelson Mandela were free because they were willing to disobey unjust laws and accept the consequences of that choice.
  • Mature followers of Jesus Christ should not be surprised that trouble and hardship follow the expression of what they believe to be God’s Word. Phil Robertson knows this because he knows his Bible. It tells us so in pretty clear language.
    “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, …” (2 Timothy 3:12 NIV)
    “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. … ” (John 15:20 NIV).
    “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him,” (Philippians 1:29 NIV)
    ” … [F]or Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV)

To be fair to Phil Robertson, I have read not one word of complaint from him about the consequences of his exercise of the right to speak and believe freely. And as for the rest of the Duck Dynasty clan, they’re not doing much whining either except to say they’re “disappointed” that A&E chose to suspend Phil for a constitutionally protected expression of his religious views. I am free to say what I wish, but in doing so I must be willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of that speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.

*Getting less media attention–but arguably more offensive–are Robertson’s remarks on race. He grew up in Jim-Crow Louisiana, but Robertson denied seeing any black person ever mistreated. In his view, they were “singing and happy” in the “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare” era. One wonders if Robertson ever considered the possibility that his African-American acquaintances might have been reluctant to share their racial-injustice stories with a white man, even one who, according to Robertson, was “white trash”. And did Robertson ever notice what was sometimes done to a black man in the Deep South who openly opposed segregation?

Teach Your Children Well

Have you noticed all the “Schools in Crisis!” items popping up in the news? Merit pay for teachers. No child left behind. Schools of choice. Common Core. Tenure reform. Standardized testing. Charter schools. Vouchers. It’s hard to read a newspaper without running across one of those controversial topics. Of course, dissatisfaction with teachers and schools is nothing new. One landmark critique of education, Why Johnny Can’t Read , was published almost sixty years ago. And my guess is that after McGuffey published his first reader in 1836, critics slammed him for dumbing down the educational process. (“Reading the Greek classics was good enough for me fifty years ago. The Iliad and Odyssey should be good enough for kids today, even if it is the 19th Century.”)

But the fact that education critics existed yesterday can’t hide the fact that we’ve got a genuine education problem on our hands today. Our children are leaving school without the skills they need to compete in a global economy. The New York Times reports that international test scores released Tuesday show American 15-year-olds lagging behind their European and Asian counterparts, especially in math. 40% of the high-school kids in Singapore snagged top scores in math. Only 17% of Polish high-school students managed to score at that same level. But how many of the American high-schoolers got top scores in mathematics? 9%.

Politicians blame teacher unions more interested in protecting incompetent teachers than preparing kids for the future. Teacher unions blame politicians whose policies force teachers to spend too much time preparing their students for standardized tests. Taxpayers grumble about high taxes. And for every person who claims to have found the villain at fault for the education crisis, there’s another person who claims to have the solution. Tie teacher pay to their students’ performance. Unleash teachers from the shackles of standardized testing and let them teach. Give each mom and dad a voucher for their kid, and let them and the free market decide which schools succeed. Stop siphoning money away from cash-starved public schools and give them the resources to do the job.

Curiously, despite all the people playing the education blame game, no one is brave enough to point the finger at villain #1: Me. Me as a parent. As the classic comic-strip character Pogo once said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”*

A parent is the child’s first and most important teacher. Research shows parental involvement is the most important component of a child’s school success. Not teachers. Not high-tech classrooms. Not big tax dollars. Parents. Unless parents accept primary responsibility for their own child’s education instead shifting that responsibility entirely onto the state, we will continue to have an education crisis in America and we will continue to lag behind the Singapores and Polands of the world.

Yes, there are bad teachers. Yes, there are rotten schools. Yes, the federal government sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong. And yes, poverty still means that some kids start school already behind. But that doesn’t mean parents can throw up their hands and walk away.  Here are some things we can do instead:

  • Read to her. Sit her on your lap when she’s just a baby. She won’t understand what you’re reading, but she’ll enjoy looking at the pictures, and she’ll love the closeness with mom or dad. Then she’ll grow up knowing that reading is not a pain but a pleasure.
  • Keep reading to her. When she’s a toddler she’ll start to recognize letters. When she’s a bit older she’ll start to realize that letters make words. Soon she’ll be reading the book to you and be so proud of herself.
  • Keep reading to her. When she hits elementary school you can start reading her big books–one chapter every night. Excitement will build as each night the story unfolds. You’re building on what you started when she was a baby: Reading is fun.
  • Take the time to learn how your child learns in those vital 0-5 years before he even hits the door of the schoolhouse. What is he capable of learning at this age? What toys can I get for her or what things can I do with her to help her master those lessons?
  •  Support and encourage him as he starts school. Expect success. Help him with his homework. Ask: “What’s the most exciting thing you learned today?” Make sure he has all the supplies he needs.
  • Show up at her school. Attend her parent-teacher conferences. Ask her teacher how you can be helpful, how you can be the teacher’s at-home partner. (Kids spend 70% of their waking hours outside school.)
  • Make sure he gets enough sleep and enough of the right food to eat. He can’t go places if his tank’s empty.
  • Support her teacher. Surprise the teacher with a thoughtful gift every now and then. Bring in treats for the teachers when they’re stuck at school for a boring in-service training session. And it doesn’t cost you a penny to send her teacher a note of thanks and encouragement.

He’s your kid and it’s your responsibility to prepare him for his future. So do it.

*In the War of 1812 after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry won a naval victory on Lake Erie, he sent this message: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” On the first Earth Day in 1970, Pogo creator Walt Kelly cleverly twisted the famous quotation to make the point that we ourselves are responsible for the pollution of our planet.

Obamacare: Part Two

Last week’s blog post dealt with the remarkable reluctance of anyone connected with the Obamacare website failure to take any responsibility for it. Federal contractors. Government bureaucrats. The White House. When countless frustrated citizens–people whom the government was requiring to buy health-care insurance–asked why they couldn’t log on to a website set up to comply with the health-insurance mandate, no one was willing to step up and say “It was my fault”. Like siblings standing in the shards of what used to be Mom’s favorite table lamp, finger-pointing was the order of the day.

Since then there’s been some progress. No, the website is not up and running smoothly; the feds tell us–promise us!–that by the end of November healthcare.gov will be tuned up and running as smoothly as Jimmie Johnson’s Chevy coming out of the pits at Talladega. (That’s a full two months after Uncle Sam told us the website would be ready and a scant one month before health-insurance polices expire for millions of Americans.)

Since then, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifed before a congressional committee and apologized to the American people. NBC News reports that her testimony included this statement: “You deserve better. I apologize.” I do applaud the federal government’s step in the right acceptance-of-responsibility direction. Apologies are good. But with the hope that Secretary Sebelius might want to make further progress, let me offer these observations:

  • When making an apology for one’s failure, it’s best not to minimize the failure. Using the word “flawed” to describe the website’s launch is like calling the Titanic’s maiden voyage “disappointing”. It’s best to accurately own up to what it was–a disastrous failure–if you want your apology to be well received. (Madame Secretary, you share this problem with somebody who works for you. CNN reports that Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in her congressional apology that “the website does not work as well as it should.”)
  • Apologies are no time to minimize the problem or to find what you perceive to be a silver lining to the cloud for which you’re apologizing. So, pointing out that the website never actually “crashed”–it was just unreliabe and slow–doesn’t enhance the quality of your apology. (Ms. Tavenner is no stranger to the silver-lining approach either, claiming that it was actually an ecouraging sign that the website buckled under the weight of so many people trying to access it. It shows that the government is offering a good people: scads of citizens want to buy it. Pssst to Ms. Tavenner: The government is requiring people to buy health insurance.)
  • Don’t feel so bad, Secretary Sebelius; lots of people miss this next point. Saying “I apologize” is a weak, weasely way to make an apology. (Even weaker: “I want to apologize.”) Grow a spine and spit out these two simple words: “I’m sorry.” It puzzles me and makes me sad that so many people find it so hard to say those two little words. They make one’s apology powerful and credible.
  • I understand your reluctance to throw your boss under the bus, but when asked if President Obama is ultimately responsible for the website fiasco, your first reponse could have been better than: ““You clearly, uh — whatever, yes.” To your credit you recovered quickly and did concede that President Obama “is responsible for government programs.”

But, hey, I’m a glass-half-full kind of a guy. Any step in the right acceptance-of-responsibility direction is worth a applauding. Kudos to you, Secretary Sebelius for taking those first few baby steps in the right direction. Let’s wait and see what November 30 brings.

Check out Jon Stewart’s R-rated commentary:

Excuses for Rape in Cleveland

I try not to pick low-hanging fruit. Sometimes the lessons to be learned from a failure to accept responsibility are so easy to detect, so simple to discern that I decide readers have no need for my comment or analysis. I decide that it would be an insult to the intelligence of the followers of this blog to point out the obvious responsibility-acceptance shortcomings in some statements. Like an Anthony Weiner press conference. I try to reach for the tall branches of the tree.

But sometimes I can’t ignore the low-hanging fruit. Sometimes there’s a good reason to state the obvious. So it is with the outrageous comments that Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro made at his recent sentencing.

Castro abducted three women off the streets of Cleveland’s west side starting in 2002. They were 21, 16 and 14 years old. He kept them locked in separate bedrooms in his home, repeatedly raping them vaginally, orally and anally. He got one of the women pregmant and forced a second to act as the midwife to deliver the child. He then kept his own daughter captive, forcing her to live in the same locked room as her mother. Castro made sure other pregnancies were terminated. He used terror, brutal beatings and the threat of more violence to keep them compliant. Among Castro’s tactics: frequently displaying a gun and forcing the women to play Russian Roulette. When the women were finally rescued in May afer a decade of captivity, they were pale, under-nourished and dehydrated.

Castro snapped up a plea deal that saved him from the death penalty. After pleading guilty to 937 counts, he received a sentence of life in prison–plus 1,000 years. (My advice: a low-fat diet, no smoking and plenty of exercise. Who knows how many of those years he could knock down?)

Every defendant has the right to allocute before sentencing. (That’s a fancy 50-cent lawyer/judge word that has a 10-cent meaning: defendant gets to make comments to the judge before getting sentenced.) Castro made the most of his allocution opportunity. His comments included:
–The sex was consensual; in fact they asked him for it.
–His was “a happy household” marked by “harmony”.
–None of the three were virgins when he abducted and began raping them.
–He was not actually a criminal, just a victim. He can’t be responsible for something he can’t control: his disease of sex addiction.
–“I’m not a violent person. I simply kept them there so they couldn’t leave.”
–He pleaded guilty only to save the three women further trauma.

The outrageous nature of these statements is obvious. This fruit is low on the tree. But what makes it important to pick this low-hanging fruit is that Castro’s comments are not at all uncommon. When men commit sex crimes and other crimes of violence against women, it is not unusual for them to engage in all sorts of twisted thinking to justify and minimize their behavior.
–She was asking for it.
–Let me tell you how she was dressed. What else was I to think?
–It’s not like this was the first time for her.
–At first she said yes. Then when she said no, I couldn’t stop myself. And I didn’t really think she meant it.
–She’s the one who chose to get drunk.
–She was out by herself at night. What did she think was going to happen?
–She didn’t even fight back.
–She was flirting with me all night. What else did she expect me to do?
–I’m not getting any at home.
–It wasn’t really rape, just a hookup that went too far I guess.

What makes the Castro case blog-worthy is that it vividly illustrates the need for men to step up and acknowledge their own responsibility to avoid sexual assault. Learn what rape is. Learn how to ask for consent. Accept that “No” really means “No”. Understand that women are people–not just objects for your sexual gratification–and begin to treat them like people. Realize that casual, no-strings sex is a myth; it’s a big deal with possible long-lasting emotional consequences for both partners. Learn how to be a real man, one who enjoys consensual, passionate, powerful sex with a committed partner.

CNN article about Castro’s sentencing comments:

Top Ten Ways Fathers Accept Responsibility


Being a father is a big deal. Please don’t have sex with a woman unless you’re prepared to accept the responsibility of fathering the child who might result. Yes, there are lots of kids who are being raised by their moms with little or no help from Dad. And, yes, many of those children will turn out just fine thanks to the strong women who are raising them. But I wonder how many of those good women would refuse the involvement of a good man in the life of her child. Research shows that children with involved fathers do better in school, are less likely to engage in early sexual activity, are less likely to find themselves in juvenile court and have higher self-esteem. Being a father is a big deal.

Here’s a Father’s Day list of the ways dads can accept responsibility for their kids.

  1. Marry your child’s mother. A marriage license is not “just a piece of paper”; it’s an outward sign of an inward commitment. This is not an unfamiliar concept to men. Gangs insist that new members get a tattoo. It’s not just ink and skin, it’s an outward sign of their inward commitment to the gang. Let a Sox fan rip the hat off a Cubs fan, and you’ll see pretty quickly that it’s not just a baseball cap. Your kid needs to know that you’ve made a commitment to her mother. Kids thrive on security and predictability. Your kid needs to know that you’ll be there in the morning. With mom. So marry her–if you haven’t screwed things up so royally that she won’t have you. Marry her. And love her.
  2. Walk the walk. Men hold few people in lower esteem than a BS-er, an empty boaster. (In Texas, they say: “All hat, no cattle.”) No one respects a man whose big talk is not matched by his actions. And kids are no exception. Actions really do speak louder than words.  Be the person you want your kid to grow up to be. I saw this Father’s Day quote on my friend Dee’s FB page today: “He didn’t tell me how to live. He lived and let me watch him do it.” Clarence Budington Kelland.
  3. Treat your kid’s mother with respect and courtesy. Yes, almost half of all marriages end in divorce. But no one really cares what terrible things your ex did to cause the divorce. Your kids certainly don’t.  One of the best things fathers can do after divorce is to say good things about their mother to his kids. Set aside personal differences and talk nicely to your ex about the kids. Your child needs to know that whatever it was that led to the divorce, mom and dad are united in their desire to do what’s best for me. And pay your child support.
  4. Support your kid’s dream. I know it would kill you to see your kid fail, but don’t be the one to crush your kid’s dream by “being practical”. Don’t talk down a lofty Plan A by promoting a safe Plan B. What if young Barry Obama’s mother had told him that the chances of a biracial kid with an absent father growing up to be president were, well, close to non-existent? We really don’t know what our kids are capable of until we let them spread their wings and fly. Encourage them to dream, and dream big.
  5. Protect your kids. Kids are small, vulnerable beings with poor judgment, not yet able to protect themselves from the world with all its danger and evil. They need a place to grow up, a place that is safe and secure.  Kids cannot focus on the things they need to do to become healthy functional adults unless they feel safe, secure and protected. You’re the dad. This is your job. Do it.
  6. Say Yes. As a young dad I read books with the hope that they could help me tackle the perplexing  job of  fathering children. They were very little help. But I retained this one tidbit of wisdom: Say yes. Say yes whenever you can. Even when you’re tired or when it’s inconvenient or you’d planned to watch the big game, say yes. Unless  they ask something that’s dangerous or unhealthy or illegal or clearly against the rules of the household, say yes. Don’t let “No” be your default answer. Sooner or later–probably sooner–your kid will just stop asking because he’ll realize that you don’t care to be part of his life.
  7. Break the cycle. Don’t be the prisoner of your past. Sure your dad was a jerk or a bully or worse. That doesn’t mean you have to be one. Never had a good fatherhood role model? Then find one. Commit that the generation-to-generation tradition of violence and abuse in your family stops with you. Be the dad you wish you’d had. You can do it. And your kid deserves it.
  8. My kid is NOT #1. Show your kids that they are not everything to you. Yes, they should be a priority. Yes, being a good dad is one of the most important things you do in a lifetime. But they can’t think they’re your whole world. They need to know their place in the whole grand scheme of an adult’s life; the world does not revolve around them. You have a spiritual side, and you must show your kids that developing a faith relationship with God is crucial. They must know if they ever force you to pick sides between them and their mother, mom wins every time. They must know there are  parts of you besides “dad”:  job, exercise, friends, sports.
  9. Spend time with them. Quality time does not make up for a lack of quantity time. Your kids need you to be with them. My friend Michelle recently noted this about parents and kids: “Life together is everything.” Absence punctuated by episodes of super-duper activity will not cut it with your kids. They need you to spend time with them. Be there on the ordinary days when nothing super-duper happens. Pay attention to them. Talk to them. Play with them. I know you’re exhausted after a hard day’s work, but do you really want your child’s most enduring memory of you to be the back of a newspaper?
  10. Tell your kid you love her. Sure, you show her you love her in oh-so-many ways. You work hard. You put food on the table. You spent a weekend following impossible-to-understand instructions and built her that princess playhouse in the backyard. But your kid needs to hear it from your lips. Often. Hug her. (Don’t stop hugging when she hits puberty; she feels awkward enough about her changing body without her dad getting all weird.) And tell her you’re proud of her.

P.S.  Liz, Katie and Brian, I love you. Cadence and P., I love you too. And I love your mom and grandma.

Wisdom from The Godfather: