Recently we took the girls fishing for the first time while up in the North Georgia mountains. Growing up, I always experienced fishing as a boring, not fun experience. Too many rules, not enough movement or excitement. But then as an adult, I look back with nostalgia, wishing I’d experienced more fishing trips. So, in my infinite wisdom and desire to recreate a positive experience I never really had we took the girls along with some good friends of ours fishing. It was a classic case of dads teaming up to create more chaos!
As it turned out though, while some aspects of it may have been fun, as a whole it was probably a bust. I ended up doing more yelling than relaxing (you’re doing it wrong! probably came out of my mouth at least 100 times). Oh, and then there was the time my three year old fell in the actual water. Yep, so that happened. This is what happens when you force the issue. You end up with a soaking wet child, hurt feelings, and grumpy adults. Lesson learned? Or still in progress?
Fatherhood and parenting in general is a constant exercise in learning how not to force the issue. Take me for instance. I was raised as a kid to be seen and not heard. We knew our place as children, and it wasn’t to have ideas or voice opinions. Clearly that created some problems as I entered my teenage years. After all those years not questioning rules and strict discipline, I began to form my own opinions and question everything. That must have been pleasant for those tasked with raising me!
Fortunately, my mom always provided me with the space to figure things out on my own. In fact, while all the other adult figures around me had strong opinions about what I should be doing with my life, my mom was the only person who rarely offered an opinion. And if she did, it wasn’t unsolicited. At the time I think I misunderstood this for apathy. She was constantly working trying to provide for us as a single black mother. I assumed perhaps she just didn’t have the time to keep tabs on all the things I was getting into. Or perhaps she trusted me (could that have been it?). Or, maybe she knew what I’m starting to learn now as a parent: give them time and they’ll come around.
My mother took this same approach with each of my younger siblings as well. And while we each had our shares of misadventures and hard knocks, we never felt shamed or condemned by our mother when things didn’t go well. She was just as encouraging and affirming when we were hardheaded, as she was when we made her proud. Perhaps she was just always proud of us regardless of what we did.
It’s difficult for me to admit, but as my girls approach their tween and teenage years, I have no control over how things will turn out with each of them. The illusion of control over outcomes is as old as humanity and the various rationales we’ve created to explain how things work the way they work. And I have a lot of work to do when it comes to not judging when the girls take a different path or approach than I would have. How did my mother come to do this so effortlessly?
You know where I’m seeing this most clearly? On our my bike-rides in the afternoon with the girls. On weekdays in the afternoons I go on these bike-rides with my daughters around the neighborhood. I’ve successfully taught the oldest 3 to ride bikes, and just recently promoted London, my third eldest who is now six years old to a full fledged real bike. We’ve definitely had our share of scrapes (most famously at the beginning of 2020 when my second oldest had to have emergency dental surgery to remove and repair several broken teeth). So, when I say that I know anything can happen, I’ve witnessed some wild things.
But, I’ve pressed on with this as our thing. We’ve gone on bike rides to Chattanooga, brought our bikes to ride in the mountains, at the beach, we even rode along Lake Shore drive in Chicago. It’s all about creating some memories with my squad. And yet, not only can I not control for every safety outcome (though I try to be prepared and take pre-cautions). I also can’t control for how and when the girls engage. Just the other day I told the girls I was headed for a ride and asked if anyone wanted to come and everyone said no. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s actually starting to happen.
They’re forming their own opinions about how they want to spend their time, and now I have to decide, am I ok with that? If I force the issue and make them ride along, will it be worth it or will it start to do damage to the relationship? When and how should I honor their choices? Sometimes it means instead of going bike riding, I’ll offer to play Nintendo Switch (we recently beat the last castle!). Or, honoring their choices might mean agreeing to our new book club choice (now it’s Amari and the Night Brothers, I choose the last one This is Malala and well, while they liked it at the end, they’re already more excited about this sci-fi thriller than they ever were about my last pick!).
Giving them space and honoring their choices are two good practices that help me not to force the issue when it comes to our evolving relationships. But there’s another thing that my mom did (and still does), that I’m realizing might also help as well. My mom may not have forced the issue, but she still provided the framework that allowed me to test boundaries and explore my own autonomy within reason. It wasn’t an everything goes household. It was simply a judgement free zone. She seemed to take the path of least resistance with us, and I think it turned out well. Here’s to hoping that it works for me.
PS- Here’s something cool/interesting. Ever since we got back from our fishing trip, the girls have taken to pulling their fishing rods out of the garage and sitting out in the yard pretending that they’re fishing. It’s kind of cute. And also…does this mean they want to go fishing again? lol.