There are often significant times when we are children that we don’t fully understand until we are adults. We cannot process their full meaning until many years have past. This goes for positive as well as negative experiences. We often assume that children react more emotionally than adults to a stressful or happy event. This is often not true. We figure this out when we see a son continue to play joyfully with his toys when told that his grandfather just died, as though nothing of significance has happened. We figure this out when a daughter doesn’t thank us for some great thing we have done for her, as though your massive sacrificial deed was insignificant. This is not to say that such things do not radically affect children. In fact, those seemingly unaffected children may be brewing rage, thankfulness, fear, joy or frustration without even our most discerning eye detecting it. These emotions, of course, surface as we mature into adolescence. Many have studied and commented on how this affects kids with intensely negative experiences, such as abused children. But what about those kids with intensely positive experiences? Do those emotions percolate over years, only to surface down the road with a parallel intensity? I suspect this is true, because it has been the case for me.
Putting your priorities where your mouth is
My father experienced several years of surging popularity among his peers in his ministry setting. With surprise to our family, Dad found himself getting votes for the top denominational position in our church government. This in and of itself was not that earth-shattering. There are always leaders written in, voted on or nominated to those kinds of posts that are put there to either pad the ballot with obvious non-electable yet respectable people, or to show someone not likely to win that they are appreciated – a kind of public commendation for a job well done, short of an elected promotion. Most democratic governmental systems work this way. But because of his fairly wide appeal—in spite of his relatively young age of 42—Dad came out with the most votes. A majority had not been reached, but most likely the swing votes from the next ballot would decide the outcome.
What happened has marked and will continue to mark my view of Dad with increasing intensity. He stood before the conference’s delegates and spoke of us—his children—first. Then he spoke of his career second. He articulated how these years were pivotal in our lives, and that we needed a father that would be around more than that top position could ever allow. He withdrew his name from contention. He torpedoed his moment of greatest praise because of his priorities. He sunk the ship that was his surging career on the day it came in. But his family was in the boat that most concerned him.
I didn’t quite understand all that was going on at the time. But what happened in the ensuing days marked me even more. Mom and Dad didn’t even tell us of his decision, as far as I can remember. I heard it from others – especially old men. These elderly retired ministers with their hearts speaking to their own past lives would walk up to me in the halls of that convention center and tell my brother and I that they respected my Dad greatly. They told me that he did a great thing. They told me I was lucky to have a Dad like that.
What was as telling as the ones that spoke were the ones that did not. There was a glaring absence of those my Dad’s age speaking to me. Years later I discovered why. They were not admiring of him. They didn’t want to be like he was. They didn’t want to give similar speeches. Instead, they thought he was foolish. They thought that he had a duty to the denomination. They thought he made a mistake. I’ve talked to several since then that question his decision, even flippantly, because he, as they say, could have done “so much more for God” had he been in that position than he has done since.
Our quaint quote on the perfect vision of hindsight has become our great disclaimer for lives lived without discernment. Old men tend to be the only ones that know anything about fatherhood, and for them it’s too late to do anything but offer discounted wisdom. As has often been said, no one lies on their deathbed wishing that they had spent less time with their kids and more time with their career. We would like to take the advice of the old. We want to learn from the inadequacies of our fathers. We want to become the Dads our kids want to have, not the very least Dads we think they need. Many of us want to put our priorities where our mouths are. So how do we actually do it?
My father corrected a false presumption for me early in life. He taught me that pie-charting my life is a dangerous endeavor. Mapping out our spiritual, vocational, family, emotional, and physical lives into percentages doesn’t do justice to authentic prioritization. No one can divide every day into neat little time categories and keep it the same forever. Different times in life call for different things. He instead used a “See-Saw” illustration to explain the family/work balance of life. Every Dad has a playground-style see-saw in their lives. On the one side is his family, on the other side, his work. Our job is to stand in the middle of the board and “feel-out” what kind of balance is needed. The effort goes into making sure that neither side slams the ground or gets thrown off the ride.
The key to thinking this way is responding to what is needed rather than imposing onto our family or work or any other part of our lives some preconceived action. Being a Dad on purpose is more about responsiveness than responsibility. What are our kids’ needs at this phase in life? How will our decisions affect them at this time? What exactly do they need from their fathers at this age? These and other questions will help us to prioritize in an authentic way. It centers our fickle pie charts on their priorities, not ours. And if we as Dads are honest, that is what we want to focus on anyway.
Once we are being these kinds of Dads we won’t need long to make the right decision for the phase our families find themselves in. My Dad didn’t need a lot of time to make this most major of career decisions. It was who he had become prior to the day of decision. Let’s prepare ourselves to be ready in the same way.
Questions to Ask Yourself or a Group of Other Dads:
- How do you feel you are already prioritizing your family in an authentic way?
- What things tend to feel more urgent in your life than family, and often times crowd out the family priority?
- What do you think your kids need you to respond to right now?
- What is unique about the stage of life your kids are in the next five years as compared to the rest of their lives?
- What are the implications for them when it comes to the major life decisions you might have coming up in the next five years?