tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Reflections on being a father

On the occasion of Father’s Day, I am pleased to reflect on the qualities that make a man a good father. As a man with four children ranging in age from 3 to 11, I know that spending time with the kids is very important. The kids crave my time and attention. It makes me realize what a position of honor it is to be a father.

There are so many things a man can do to be a good father, but I want to suggest that the most important two things that a man must do is love God and love his wife. If you do these two things, everything else a father does for his children will be more meaningful.

A man can show his love for God in all kinds of ways; keeping the commandments is one of the more obvious ways. Let me focus on two of the commandments: No. 1, “Love God with all your heart and have no strange gods before me;” and No. 4, “Honor your father and mother.”

Let’s look at the first half of the first commandment. One of the most important ways to show your love for God is to pray to Him. As parents, we are teachers, and one of the very important lessons that we teach our children is to pray to God, to talk to Him regularly, to develop a relationship with Him. It is very important for children to see their father praying to God. In our own home, I am pleased to lead prayers every evening for our children. In addition to standard prayers, we mention specific needs, asking for God’s grace.

Not all prayer is done in a group. I encourage each of the kids to pray on their own. Sometimes if my kids get up early they will see me praying by myself. I think it is important for them to see that for me, prayer is real. I mean it when I am talking to God, or trying to listen to Him. They see me on my knees, taking time to communicate with my Maker. There is no more powerful teacher than example and my sincere hope is that each of the kids will develop meaningful prayer habits that help them grow as close to God as possible.

It is typically said there are four kinds of prayer: praise, penance, petition and gratitude. In terms of being a father, I particularly want my kids to focus on those prayers of gratitude. We are so richly blessed, living in the United States in the early 21st century. We have a better life than most of the kings in history had. It is so easy to take our blessings for granted and this is a mistake. I really try to encourage my kids to take time at the start of every day to thank God for all that He has given to us.

While we can all work on being more grateful, I think gratitude is an attitude that is particularly important to develop in children. Media bombards our children with messages about things they should want. Those TV commercials are always telling kids they should want more. No matter what they already have, TV is pointing out the things they don’t have and encouraging them to want more. This sets a kid on the road to materialism, which never brings true happiness.

It is reasonable for a person to want the things that he needs, and perhaps a few things he doesn’t. Consider, however, that if a person allowed himself to be influenced by all the advertisements out there, he would want far more things than anyone could ever buy; he would be miserable. Perhaps adults can make distinctions about when to draw the line on more things to want, but I don’t think a kid is naturally equipped with that ability. I child will always want more and more, especially if the child is encouraged by the messages he sees and hears.

While we can shield our kids to an extent from these messages, the real antidote to want is gratitude. If a person has a healthy attitude of gratitude, those messages won’t sink in so quickly. If a child gets used to thinking about all the things they already have, they are less inclined to focus on the things they don’t have. I once heard someone say that one of the great tricks in life is to want the things you have, not the things you don’t have. That’s a definition of gratitude, and it is something I believe every good father needs to try to cultivate in their children; prayers of gratitude are one great way to do that.

The second part of that first commandment – ‘Have no strange gods before Me” – speaks particularly to fathers. We don’t typically think of false gods in today’s world. Nobody worships a golden calf anymore the way they did in the Old Testament. But in today’s world, I think men are particularly susceptible to making a false god out of their work. Many men relish their role as provider and some men get carried away. They focus all of their energy on their work and forget about their wife and kids. They justify consuming work schedules by telling themselves that they are providing for their families, but if a father can’t provide some time for his kids then the money he provides is far less meaningful.

My own house, like the homes of any family with four small children, is chaotic. For me, going to work is an escape. It is a place of peace compared to my house. It would be easy to begin to think of the office as my temple. It would be easy to begin to think of my work as my god. It would be easy to fool myself into believing that I need to work seven days a week, and that as long as I am earning money, it is okay that I don’t have any time for my family. What a mistake that would be. But I think a lot of guys make that mistake.

Work is important, but it cannot become our god. The second part of that first commandment is an admonition to keep our priorities in order. In any man’s life God comes first, then wife, then children and then work. The first commandment should help fathers remember this, even in the face of temptations to fiddle with that order.

The other commandment I really like to think about in terms of fatherhood is the fourth commandment. Of course, I like the idea that children are supposed to honor their father and mother. I make sure my kids know this commandment. I remind them of it whenever I can. But the real power behind this commandment is not what my kids should be doing for me, but what I should be doing for my own parents. Commandment No. 4 doesn’t stop when I turned 18. I had parents then and I still have parents, so the commandment still applies. I am still required to honor my parents, and I have to be mindful that my kids are watching.

One of the biggest issues for many people like myself –- people in their 40s –- is figuring out how to care for aging parents. My parents are living independently on their own at this point, but what will happen in the future if they really need my care? I need to be there for them. This means really caring for them, offering them my home if they need it. Just like being a good father means being there for your children, being a good child in adulthood means being there for my parents.

Living up to the demands of the fourth commandment is a big responsibility, and it requires planning. Where will mom and dad live in their old age? Where will the surviving spouse live after one of them dies? Although it is highly unfashionable for elderly parents to live with their children, I really think people should consider this arrangement and make plans for it as a possibility. Although thousands of people die every year surrounded by strangers at a nursing home, I can’t believe anyone really wants that. We don’t want to see our parents living in a nursing home. And I don’t believe any elderly person really wants to be there. People naturally want to be around the people they love, who typically come from their own families.

So honoring mom and dad means thinking about these end-of-life issues and making plans to deal with them in a meaningful way. Of course, this is not easy. Many older parents don’t want to talk about it. Many aging parents have judgment that is adversely affected by their pride and sense of independence. They consider themselves to be a burden rather than the gift from God that they truly are. Adult kids have to talk with siblings about this; they have to plan as best they can, and they have to be willing to consider the welfare of their parents to the same degree that they would consider their own welfare or the welfare of their children.

Children will always watch how their mom and dad treat their parents. I know I did. I was fortunate as a child to have the example of my own father who cared lovingly for his dear aging aunt. I watched as he visited her daily, took care of her affairs and brought her to our home frequently for visits. So honoring your mother and father is an important commandment from at least two perspectives. First, as adults we need to care for our parents as part of our own obligation, and second, the degree to which we care for our parents is likely to be the degree to which our own children one day care for us.

In addition to heeding the commandments, the other thing a man can do to be a good father is love his wife. I can think of at least a couple of ways to do that.

The first is to show complete unity with your wife in front of your children. When it comes to raising kids, I think it is essential that the kids get a consistent message from their parents. So when it comes to guiding the kids, Susan and I are always in agreement. We discuss differences in private, but in front of the kids, we display a unified front. Remember that natural order of priorities I mentioned earlier?… God, wife, kids, work. I think kids naturally understand this and they test it by occasionally trying to divide mom and dad. They play us against each other or try to win the affection of one parent over the other. But the best response from the parents is to show the child that mom and dad are in lock-step together. This might lead to some surface-level disappoint for the child but I think deep down, the child is actually glad to have the parents affirm a natural order where they love each other first, and then they love their kids.

I know one of the greatest ways I can show my love for Susan is to back her up in any situation in front of the kids. Most of the discipline in our home falls on Susan, simply because she is around the kids more than I am. So there cannot be any ambiguity about Susan’s parental authority. The kids need to know that what she says stands. Usually Susan’s own word is enough, but sometimes the kids press the situation and they need to hear from me that whatever Susan says goes. Again, while the kids might not like having to do what Susan asks, I think they are affirmed by seeing mom and dad in agreement.

The other way that a man can truly show his love for his wife is to think seriously about what it means to respect her human dignity. People are not things that should be used, like a good power tool. People are created in the image of God and therefore have dignity beyond any man-made object. So I cannot use my wife for my own pleasure or convenience. I have to respect the way she is made. Women obviously have a fertility cycle that differs from men and I have to respect that. Attempts to change that are really just me being selfish. It’s me saying I don’t really like the way God made women and I think I can do better for my own purposes.

Nobody likes to talk about this because marital relations are so deeply personal. Sex is a great gift from God and my own experience tells me I don’t need to try to improve on God’s plan for married people. He has given us the science to determine with incredible accuracy when we are fertile and infertile, and He has given us the will to act accordingly, if we choose. This isn’t something He gave to animals. This is something uniquely human, and Susan and I try to celebrate this Godly dignity in our marriage.

As my kids grow, I am gradually understanding more and more what it means to be a father. I understand now that fatherhood is a great gift from God, something I wasn’t necessarily clear on when we got our first child in 1995. I can see now that God is concerned about my salvation and one of the reasons He gave us kids is to help us get to heaven. We are born with natural selfishness and life’s journey is about moving toward selflessness. Children are really helping me along in this journey.

Before Susan and I had children, it was so easy to be selfish. It was so easy to focus on myself – what recreation I was going to pursue, what trips I was going to take, what I was going to buy next. None of that stuff is bad on its own, but collectively it was all about me.

Then the kids came along. All of a sudden, I am forced to think about someone other than me. I have to respond to my kids. And the more I do, the less I think about me. And fortunately, God understands my weakness and He gradually works me into the program. We didn’t get all four kids at once. With our first child, I really didn’t have to give up many of my personal pursuits. With the second child, I could begin to see that I would need to make some adjustments to my lifestyle. By the time the third and fourth child came along, I had given up most of my personal pursuits, and was now directing my energy and time to someone other than me. And this has been a great blessing… the great blessing of fatherhood.