The thing in my life I work hardest at is being a good father. That’s not to say that I am a good father, just that I spend a lot of time working at it, or at least worrying about it. This is probably in part because I had difficult relationships with my parents growing up, and partly because you don’t see all that many role models out there for being a great dad (whereas I’ve had the privilege to know a lot of amazing mothers in my life).
One of the conundrums for parents like me who’ve had the good fortune to earn a good living and therefore the ability to provide well . Most of my friends who have an easy, natural frugality or who really value what they have grew up in modest circumstances. I’m not referring here to the very typical topic of whether the load of giftwrapped boxes by the birthday cake or under the Christmas tree are too much, and whether my child is going to be a spoiled brat because of them. I’m talking about more subtle things; many of our friends, for example, work very hard, and therefore they have landscaping services and housekeeping services so that they can spend more time with their children (mostly carting them around from sport to arts program to sport, &c.– a topic for another post). That doesn’t feel like the right balance to me. Doing work that one loves with one’s children seems as important as playing or spending idle time with them.
Before I say anything else, let me make clear that I’m no paragon of good parenting and don’t think I’m any example to follow. I’m sharing my experiments here, and I’d encourage you to share yours. Plus I don’t do enough work at home, as my wife would attest. And so much for that … In an essay called “Economy and Pleasure,” Wendell Berry (the great poet, essayist and farmer) once deplored the segregation of children from the world of work that has come with industrialization and professionalism and corporations. He contrasts that with the world of work on his small Kentucky tobacco farm
On many days we have had somebody’s child or somebody’s children with us, playing in the barn or around the patch while we worked, and these have been our best days … The small scale and handwork of our tobacco cutting permit margins both temporal and spatial that accommodate the play of children. The children play at the grown-ups’ work, as well as their own play. In their play, the children learn to work; they learn to know their elders and their country. And the presence of playing children means invariably that the grown-ups play too from time to time.
I thought about this weekend, when the kids and I had mountains of leaves to pick up from the front and the backyard. There was more than a day’s worth out there, and we all had other creative projects we wanted to get to – painting for my daughter, my son wanted to build something out of tinkertoys and twine, and I wanted to edit photos. I’ve learned through trial and error, mostly error, that my children don’t mind work at all if we all do it together. In fact they seem to enjoy it. We started filling the back of our neighbor’s pickup truck with leaves. My daughter worked extra hard at first, filling the trash can, lifting it high over the walls of the truck bed and emptying. After a few loads she got bored and asked if she could just stomp leaves in the back of the truck for awhile. Mostly she was just daydreaming, and it seemed like a good time for a daydreaming break. My son was getting bored about the same time and took to zooming around the yard and the truck, shouting out what each of us should do next, but in a silly way that made the mood lighter. Later, after we had filled the pickup truck and were stuffing huge plastic bags with leaves, my daughter and I started playing a game, moving our snow shovels in rhythm and dumping the leaves into the trash can in unison. There was a lot of laughing and goofing as the afternoon stretched on. Neither kid mentioned the art that wasn’t getting done or that they wished they could be having a play date instead. Next thing we knew, the yard was miraculously clear.
The kids will forget all this, as they should. But hopefully one day, when the leaves start turning and falling in the yard, they’ll be perfectly willing to go and spend a day raking and bagging. Because it can be fun.