Six years ago, I was neck-deep in work. I was stuck at the office and dealing with work stuff, day and night, while my infant daughter was growing up without me really being present in her life. At that time, I had a swelling fear that I would miss most of my daughter’s childhood because I was too wrapped up in my own life and work. I knew something had to change in order for things to get better. So before Emily turned one-year-old, I made a life changing decision. I would reprioritize my entire life to make time with my family my #1 priority.
Fast-forward five years later and here we are. My priorities haven’t changed. I’ve kept time with my family first and foremost. For the most part, I’ve been physically present and an active participant in my daughters’ lives. I’ve accomplished this by working from home for three years, taking my family on a half-year cultural sabbatical, then traveling together for our current gap year.
Being a father is my most important job. It’s a job that’s a privilege, responsibility, and an immense challenge. Through trial-and-error, I’m starting to figure out what really matters and what works best.
My oldest daughter, Emily, turned 6 years old this week. To celebrate my daughter’s six-year-old birthday, here are my six observations about parenting.
1. Presence is more important than proximity.
You could be in the same room with your children, but you could also not really be there with your children. Perhaps you’re watching TV, checking something on your smartphone, reading the newspaper, or doing something that is distracting you from what’s right in front of you…your children. What your children really need is your attention. They need to be noticed, appreciated, and loved. Being present is being there with your children, not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
2. Parents are their children’s #1 role models.
Everything you do and say will be modeled by your children, good and bad. Say bad things about others who hurt you, and your children will do the same. Show compassion to those in need, and your children will do the same. Eat all of your food at dinner time and your children will naturally follow your lead to do the same with their food. Like it or not, your behavior, hopes, fears, and habits will be reflected in your children. Make sure you’re projecting the best version of yourself, so your children can mimic your ways to be the best version of themselves.
3. Children need routines and structure.
If every day were unstructured, life would get chaotic for children very quickly. Besides going to school, children need to eat, play, and sleep at consistent times of the day. With a schedule that children can anticipate, they’re able to take better control of their days. As a parent, it’s your job to set that schedule to ensure the structure is setup for your children to succeed.
4. Children also need their space and freedom.
Once a structure is setup for your children to thrive, it’s time to loosen the grip on the steering wheel and let your children guide the way. Every child is different in their interests and abilities. Let your children explore their interests with freedom and space to learn, fail, restart, or take a break. Hovering over your children can suffocate any enjoyment your children might have out of their activities. Let them color out of the lines, sing off tune, slip and fall. The learning comes from the mistakes and missteps. Let those learning moments happen naturally.
5. Invest in shared experiences.
The social fabric of your children is built through the accumulation of shared experiences. Traveling to new countries, learning new languages, swimming at the beach, hiking up mountains, eating dinner together, and spending time with relatives are some examples of valuable experiences that can be had as a family. The shared experiences get stored up in your children’s memory and slowly weave the fabric of their personalities and perspectives.
6. It’s okay to be silly sometimes.
Parenting is serious business, since you’re dealing with your life’s biggest investment—your children—on a daily basis. But parenting shouldn’t always be about making sure your children achieve certain milestones over the course of their lives, such being able to walk, talk, read, and do multiplication and division. Parenting is fun, once you lighten up. Enjoy the laughs, funny questions, and impromptu dances and singing performances. Embrace the kid in yourself by being silly with your kids sometimes. Play, smile, laugh, and have fun.