When I was young, dumb and full of… hormones, I believed I could do anything. Literally anything. I blame (thank) my parents for that. Despite, or perhaps because of my decision to quit senior school halfway through the penultimate year – mid-class, mind you – I knew I’d wind up rich, powerful and envied.
Eight months later, I realised I’d over-reached by a continental margin. Wearing a cheap polyester suit and a two-dollar tie, I found myself on a bus to a job as a trainee clerk in a government-owned bank. What a come-down.
I managed to regain some measure of ambition, and within two years, I rose through the ranks to become the youngest Trading Bank Examiner in the country; the next youngest was nine years my senior. However, the bank paid its employees on their age – not role – so my hopes of rapid wealth remained a distant dream. My dalliance with banking, therefore, was brief.
Over the years, I moved through different careers and vocations: journalism, photography, car sales, advertising, software, property investment, marketing, web design, writing and podcasting. My first decade was all about learning, growing and experiencing as fast as I could, and long hours and long odds were frequent bedfellows.
From Zero to Two
When my girls arrived, priorities changed. Sarah popped out 18 months after Amy, so I soon had a baby and a toddler to support. It would have been easy then to double down on my software career (I flirted with it briefly for double the money and hated it), but I knew that being available for my girls was more important.
I resolved, then, to make them a central focus of my career decisions, and to ensure nothing took me away from them and the attention they needed. There was one blip. During one of my busiest periods, I took Sarah to a daycare centre, hoping for a couple of days a week so I could get more work done. I remember her sweet little face and the look of abandonment as I walked out the door. I felt morally, criminally culpable.
I sat in the carpark for half an hour, hoping I could muster the will to leave. I couldn’t do it. I walked back to the front desk, signed her out of there and never went back. She would stay home with me, distractions be damned.
I’m sure most of this comes from my dad. He was always there for us, and it’s the thing I’m most grateful for. Thanks to some very deliberate choices, he gifted me a wonderful childhood with all the love, attention and mentorship/mateship I needed. I feel for kids with absent fathers, and the great losses afforded the children and the dads. You can’t postpone childhood nor early parenthood – both must occur in realtime. You can only avoid them. Sadly, many fathers do.
The only way to build a lasting bond with your children is through the application of time and attention. It isn’t enough to be there – you have to be present, too. Instead of occasional appearances punctuated with fanfare and gifts, it’s the slow, steady and consistent presence that really counts. Kids don’t want performances, they want love, empathy and a steady hand. They want an example to follow. My mum and dad gave me those, and I’ve done my best to give the same to my kids.
Today, the same principles that cemented the bond between my girls and I apply to my son, Tommy.
Despite offers to return to corporate life, and opportunities to pursue businesses with potentially big payoffs, I remain steadfastly committed to seeing my son every day. Not just an hour or two before bed, but every morning when I walk him to school, and every afternoon when I pick him up again. Most nights, we also play together or watch a movie in our home cinema. We go to bed at the same time and often giggle ourselves to sleep – just like we did last night. I might not be wealthy, but my life is rich beyond measure.
A Child in a Grown-Up Body
I’m convinced one of the best ways to relate to your kids is to remember you’re still a kid, too. Beneath your cynicism, stresses and responsibilities, you’re actually playful, idealistic and curious. You want to laugh at simple things and behave in undignified ways. You’re tempted to use silly voices and yell “JINX!” when appropriate (which, with me and Tommy, is about ten times a day).
So be a kid. Not all day, but often. There are plenty of opportunities to set an example of adult behaviour, but part of being an effective adult is remembering who you are – a child in a grown-up body.
Evidence of the Bond
The last thing you want is to wait until you’re dying before hearing a kind word from your kids. You want them to feel loved, understood and appreciated now. You’ll know you’re on the right track by how they look at you, and how they invite or avoid physical contact. As always, the best way to have this is to give it first. And remember, this isn’t a transaction, so don’t expect an instant exchange of value or an immediate ROI.
Whenever I walk past my kids, I usually pat them on the shoulder, tickle them or stick my finger in their ear – whichever’s appropriate. Thankfully, my kids do the same to me. Often, they’ll give me a bone-crushing hug; or in the case of Tommy, a kick up my arse. It’s all welcome and appreciated.
Of course, you’ll have to adjust your actions to suit your kids; if you have more than one, you’ll know that no two kids are the same. If you’re around them enough, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. You’ll also learn what they need, despite what they’re projecting (even fiercely independent teenagers need to feel loved). Some things are universal and ALWAYS apply:
- Be around (without this, you’ll fail)
- Listen to them (even if you’re bored or you don’t agree; put your damn phone away, too)
- Respect them and their views (don’t preach, but don’t let them kill themselves, either)
- Love them (not by saying “I love you” all the time, but by showing it – refer points 1 to 3)
- Be playful (kids are a great excuse to revisit who you really are)
- Be an example (don’t tell them – show them how to be a good person, and let them adopt the parts they choose)
I’ve had eighteen years to watch all of this play out, with Amy crossing the threshold to adulthood earlier this year. Sarah’s not far behind (she’ll be 17 in a few days), and Tommy’s going to hit nine in a couple of months.
Here’s what I know: if I’d have remained in a traditional corporate setting, I would not have connected with my kids the way I have. I’d have been like every other absent dad out there – always compensating for my lack of presence with trinkets and an all-too-brief annual holiday. I would have missed school plays, parent-teacher interviews, talks about love interests, discussions on Minecraft mods, kicking a ball in the back yard, fart jokes and movie sessions with popcorn and laughs. I wouldn’t have been there to take them to the doctor, buy sanitary pads, eat hotdogs after school, or deliver a response to some biatch bullying my daughter on social media.
How many of these priceless things do we trade to sit in an office somewhere? How much of what matters do we postpone in pursuit of a title or money or status?
I’ve determined that what I gave up has been repaid to me a thousand-fold. I know my dad feels the same way. In fact, I’d argue that we’re living in a golden era, where the ‘sacrifices’ have diminished to a point where, for many professions, they’re almost non-existent.
Today, you can build a career around your life and still enjoy all the money and status you think you need. In my opinion, working how, where and when I want is the ultimate status symbol. The fact that it’s also the catalyst for being a better dad makes it a deal-closer.
When I was young, I wanted to be rich, powerful and envied. Today, I want to pursue things that matter, to have agency over my life, and to be loved by those I care about.
I’d say mission accomplished, then.
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