Dad Notes: You Are Having An Impact on Your Kids. Make It Count!

nuclear family 1967

Dad, me (center,) the sibs, and a stylish lamp – 1967

As a young man I never really dreamed of having kids, or even of getting married for that matter. I had been paying attention, and I rarely saw a marriage that looked like an enviable situation to me. I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea, it’s just that I had a lot of other things that I wanted to do. Things that probably wouldn’t provide a reliable means to support a family. Things like being an artist.

Wow, how things changed. Mollie and I will celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary this fall, and our youngest of 5 children graduated high school 2 years ago. I now consider my relationship with my wife and kids to be far and away the best investment of my time, energy, and life that I could have made. I’m so glad we had 5 kids. I really could not have guessed how deeply fulfilling being a dad would be.

When my first son was born, literally when I first laid eyes on him, it was as though a switch got flipped. I embraced fatherhood with a passion. Building a solid marriage and family is hard work, but looking back on my own upbringing I could see that it was as important as any work there is.

Did I do things perfectly? Of course we all know the answer to that…

A bad dad story
Not that I need to prove I’m not perfect, but there was this one day when I took our (then) four kids with me to the grocery store to give mom a break.

We got out of the mini-van, and there was a stray shopping cart right next to the van. I strapped the baby in to the built in car seat, and told my kids I would give them a ride to the store entrance! I told my daughter to stand on the end of the cart and told her to hold on tight. I positioned a boy on either side of the cart and told them to hold on tight.

I told them to hold on tight, not because anything bad was going to happen, but because I was such an awesome and responsible dad.

I started pushing the shopping cart, now loaded down with small children. I remember being a little surprised at how heavy the cart was, and thinking that we were possibly going slightly too fast. But all of my kids were laughing and holding on tightly, and I could tell they were all thinking, “YAY! We have a FUN dad!!!” Plus I couldn’t really slow the cart down anyway. I noticed several people in the parking lot looking at me like I was an idiot, but I didn’t care because I was being awesome and they weren’t.

To my relief, we actually approached the store entrance without hitting any old people or getting backed into by a car. Unfortunately, just as we were slowing down and nearly out of danger, one of the boys decided to hop off the cart. This upset the delicate balance I had created and the cart began to tip. I was not strong enough to hold back the weight of the remaining 3 kids, and the shopping cart tipped completely over, right in front of the supermarket entrance.

There I was, red-faced on the ground with 3 screaming kids, including a baby who was (fortunately) strapped in, upside down in the shopping cart.

I remember being really glad my wife wasn’t there.

Embracing the fatherhood role
My dad was apparently smarter than me. I had a great dad and a very secure, I would even say uneventful, upbringing. No abuse, no feelings of non-acceptance, not even any big hurtful words or moments that I can remember. I took this for granted at the time. It simply fit with the way I thought a dad who claimed to follow Jesus should raise his kids. The love of my parents made the world make sense to me. I have now come to see how unusual my upbringing was.

It almost seems unfair just how much fathers impact the lives of their children. My adult children now lament that, even among their Christian friends, great dads seem to be rare. Many kids grow up warped by dads who were physically and/or emotionally absent, or abusive, or habitually angry, or control freaks, or unaccepting, or too proud to admit when they were wrong.

But there is an upside to how much impact a dad will inevitably have on his kids. The upside is that we can consciously choose to influence our kids for good. We can ask God the Father to give us the heart of a father – the kind of heart that He had in mind when He created the fatherhood role.

As a young parent, my dad’s example was always in the back of my mind, like a north star that I could navigate by when I was unsure of what to do. I think it gave me an added measure of confidence and peace in my parenting as well. But even if your upbringing was troubled, you can still learn from your parents’ mistakes, as our own kids will certainly learn from ours.

May this day inspire you to renew your mind and renew your commitment to be a great father to your children. No one else can do this as well as you.

“…For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8-10.)

Confessions of a Revisionist Dad

lullabies and nursey rhymesRevisionism can cut both ways.

A few years ago my wife and I were in a public place with one of our teenaged daughters. She happened to hear the lyrics from the lullaby, Rock-a-bye Baby, and her mouth dropped open. She turned to us and exclaimed, “Did you hear what they said?”

“What?” I innocently asked.

“They said the bough breaks and the baby falls out of the tree!” she replied. “That’s terrible!”

My wife and I sheepishly looked at each other. “Umm…actually… those are the real lyrics,” I said, grinning.

“Are you serious?!…

I guess I forgot to tell my daughter that when she and our other children were small, I made a small change to the classic lullaby, and changed a few bedtime stories to boot.

The first time I started singing Rock-a-bye-Baby at bedtime with my first child, I stopped myself mid-lullaby. I thought it seemed almost like a taunt; sweetly singing to a child about the wind blowing and breaking the branch, and the baby then falling out of the tree. ‘Sweet dreams, kid! I imagined him lying in the dark after I kissed him goodnight, wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling, fitfully drifting off to sleep, having nightmares about falling. So I changed the lyrics to:

Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bow breaks the cradle will fall,
And Daddy will catch you, cradle and all.

And that’s what our kids grew up hearing. After adding this to my repertoire of bedtime lullabies, and singing it to our five kids over a period of years, after a while I never thought about it anymore.

A lot of old nursery rhymes left me scratching my head. What were these people thinking? Did they hate children? Were they even parents? Who wrote Jack and Jill, and Little Miss Muffet? And that one about the blackbird pecking off the maid’s nose? (Apparently, a 1744 version published in London had “four and twenty naughty boys baked in a pye.” Which, I guess, grisly though it is, at least has a point.)

With contemporary books it’s sometimes easier to guess the author’s intentions. A couple of my kids liked a certain storybook that I had picked up, used, from a garage sale. I purchased it because the illustrations were very nice, and, as an illustrator, I enjoyed looking at them. Plus, I liked the idea of the story. It was narrated by a little girl, and the story was really just her talking about her family, her dog, and her grandparents, and their lives together. I no longer have the book, but I’m pretty sure it was called, Come to Our House, Meet Our Family. It made for a cheerful and pleasant bedtime story.

I would guess the book was published in the late 1960’s or 70’s, and it seemed clear to me that part of the author’s intent was to normalize the idea of both Dad and Mom working outside the home. (The mom was a dentist.) I was fine with that, but I also wanted to do a little normalizing of my own. Toward the end of the book, there was an illustration of the Mom and Dad, and the boy and girl, and Smudge, the dog, all laughing together on the parent’s big blue bed. It said something like:

“On Sunday mornings my brother and I jump into Mom and Dad’s bed and wake them up. After a while we all go downstairs and make breakfast together.”

I would always cheerfully add a simple line that wasn’t really there: “Then we go to church!”

I had been struck by how rarely church-going is mentioned as a normal part of life in books and movies. As though it’s an embarrassing habit that we should all be quiet about. As though no one attends church in this country! Since this was a simple, unremarkable story about a normal family, I thought it would be nice for my kids to grow up thinking that going to church was simply a normal part of life. In fact they did grow up thinking this, but no thanks to the storybooks we read. Except for maybe this one.

I suppose someone might argue that classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes are the pinnacle of children’s literature for young children, but I’m not that person. Some I like very much, but some of them are downright creepy. I think there is room in the world for some children’s stories that are intentional about reinforcing a biblical worldview, yet without being so pedagogical that all of the enjoyment is sucked out. My conversations with other parents and grandparents have led me to believe I’m not alone in thinking this.

I would love to hear suggestions and insights from other parents on the subject of children’s books and stories. What do you like? What do your kids love? What is missing?

children's storybooks-fables

Watercolor illustration from The Cocky Rooster – coming in July 2014

UPDATE: I’m happy to say that my first new book, The Cocky Rooster, is finished and I’m waiting to get proofs back from the print-on-demand company before I make it available to you. My next post will introduce you to the book specifically.

I’ll talk to you then! May God bless you as you seek to make Him known to the children in
your care,

— Scott Freeman

For Father’s Day: My Favorite Dad Story

Recent near-death experiences and other delays have put me behind schedule for releasing the June storybook. So in a good faith effort to post something here, while not taking too much time away from the work that still needs to be done, I’m re-posting my favorite Dad story. This was originally posted last year on my Art & Life Notes blog:

Today I share my all time favorite super-hero-dad story – a true story about my dad. Over 30 years later, I still smile every time I think about it. I hope it makes you smile as well.

First, I must describe my dad because it’s an integral part of the story. Growing up I saw my dad as a pretty impressive figure. More than any other man I knew, his physique most closely resembled the Marvel Comic super-heroes that I followed. My dad was a blue-collar, union guy, working in construction as an iron-worker foreman until the day he retired. This alone impressed me. I knew he spent his days several stories above ground, welding, and carrying heavy bundles of iron across the skeletal I-beams of tall buildings. His job was physically demanding, dangerous, and cool, and I heard him say more than once how much he loved it.

Years of working high up next to the sun had turned his skin dark brown. My sister’s friend once mistook him for a black guy while sitting behind him in church. Viewed from the front, he had blue eyes, and not a hint of the usual construction-worker’s beer gut. In fact, even though my dad was a “man’s man,” I never once heard him swear, or saw him take a drink, or smoke anything. Now that I think of it, I guess I don’t even remember hearing him belch. He was generally soft-spoken, and rarely raised his voice with my mom or us kids. Nobody’s perfect, but my dad at least never gave us reason to think that he doubted his Southern Baptist beliefs.

DAD-blogI think it took my dad a while to grow into being a great dad. I think initially he saw his role as simply being a great provider. My early memories of him are of a large, dark, mostly silent figure either reading the paper, or working around the house. Always on a project and mostly speaking in monosyllables. Or, at the dinner table I would watch in awe, looking up at him as he silently downed vast amounts of food and poured quart sized glasses of white milk down his brown throat. He wasn’t a jerk; he was just mysterious. But mystery is way overrated.

Sometime during my early teenage years, I realized he had undergone a transformation.

He had become totally engaged. He played Saturday morning tennis and Tuesday night volleyball with my siblings and me. He coached my sister’s softball team. But more importantly he began talking and joking around with us. He could be pretty funny. He became a warmer and closer human being.  I could relate to him in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of before.

For example, he was impossible to buy gifts for. What do you buy for a guy like this? Nails? Knives? Ammo? A spittoon? Lava soap? A heavy-duty razor? Meat? Well, unless he was at church he always wore a baseball cap, so one year for Father’s Day I bought him a dark blue hat with bright red plush wings on the side. Like something the Greek god Hermes might wear. I got it as a joke, assuming he would never wear it in public. But, indicative of his astounding midlife personality transformation, he did wear it. And this is also part of my story.

DAD hat blgOne summer, my dad, my brother, and I were all playing on the church softball team together. (Slow-pitch softball would be a sacrament in the Southern Baptist Church, if the SBC had sacraments.) We had a big, night game at a large, lit-up field surrounded by woods. My dad was one of the team’s best players, but on this particular night he was out of uniform, sitting in the stands because he had injured his hamstrings at work. He was wearing the blue hat with the red wings.

It so happened that our team was a couple of guys short that night. The coach went into the stands to try to persuade my dad to play, because otherwise we would have to forfeit the game. But my dad could hardly walk. He agreed though. The plan was to have a pinch-runner for him, and to put him in the bottom of the batting order, so we could at least play the game out.

Eventually it came time for my dad to bat. As he hobbled out to the plate, I heard the crowd murmuring, and I saw someone pointing at dad’s legs. My dad was wearing mid-thigh-length shorts. (This was the 1980’s, after all.) He didn’t realize this, but everyone could clearly see large black and blue bruises on the back of his legs. I have already mentioned how dark my dad was, but I failed to mention that this only applied to his upper body. His legs were as white as the wind-driven snow. He must’ve been in his early 50’s at this point. He was wearing a button down plaid shirt. I’ll just say that with his dark brown arms, plaid shirt, shorts and white bruised legs, and that dorky hat, this was probably not Dad’s most intimidating look.

The manly, uniformed pitcher turned to the outfield and waved the outfielders to move in closer. The manly, uniformed outfielders all moved in closer. I thought to myself, “Hmmm.” My dad took the first pitch. Strike one. On the second pitch my dad beat the snot out of the ball, sending it over the center fielder’s head and into the freaking woods. The whole place erupted. The other team was so hacked, throwing their hats down in the dirt and walking around in little circles with their hands on their hips. Our team was all shouting and cracking up, and the coach, laughing, just waved at my dad to walk the bases himself, since a ball hit into the woods is considered an automatic homer.

I will never forget the sight of my dad literally baby-step-hobbling around the bases, taking F-O-R…E-V-E-RRRRR, which just prolonged the opposing team’s agony. And all with that goofy winged hat on, unintentionally mocking them. As this cartoonish base-rounding formality dragged on, people in the stands were whooping it up and shouting out comments to my dad, it was all so endearingly pathetic. It was like watching a hurried, plaid penguin making its way across dry land.

Then, suddenly, just as we all thought the utter goofiness had reached its climax, the opposing team erupted again, crazily shouting, “THROW IT! THROW IT!!!” The dazed center fielder had emerged from the woods holding the ball. Waking, as if from a dream, eventually he realized that my dad still hadn’t made it around the bases! In fact he had just rounded third. These young bucks were actually going to try to throw the cripple out at home!

The center fielder sprang into action and hit the cut-off man. The cut-off man threw to home, (a bit high.) My dad and the ball arrived at home plate at the same time. But Dad had one more little trick up his plaid sleeve. He executed a perfect hook slide into home, falling away from the catcher as only his toe crossed the plate. The catcher missed the tag. The umpire cried, “SAFE!” Utter pandemonium broke loose. But at this point, even the other team had to start laughing and shaking their heads, and shaking my dad’s hand.

Sometimes you just have to submit to awesomeness.

Happy Father’s Day to my awesome dad!

father and son

My dad and me.