Real dads being there. It’s a familiar theme in movies, television shows, music, and books. A child desperate for the approval and attention of his father is crushed once again to find out that Dad won’t be able to attend some special event in his life. In half of the movies, the child looks up at the last possible moment and makes unpredicted eye contact with his dad, signifying the drastic change their relationship is about to go through for the better. In the other half, the child looks up and the dad doesn’t show up. He doesn’t bother. He doesn’t care. Nothing gets better. This generally represents the beginning of a troublesome time for the child.
Cliché or not, there is a reason this subject keeps showing up disguised under the label of entertainment. It’s a subject that hits a nerve with people. It strikes a painful, guilty, upsetting, or even grateful chord within those that see it. Many are brought to ponder the way their own fathers were absent throughout their lives. Others are left grateful for a father that showed up. For some, it’s a reminder of the type of father they don’t want for their own children.
No matter what story is being represented, it’s always portrayed under the same blanketing moral. It’s always being discussed as an aphorism that nobody disputes. Good dads are there. Period.
While writing this, I’ve been trying to think of even one time my own father wasn’t able to be at something that I considered important.
As a young child, I was a member of Santa’s Frosty Follies, a children’s Christmas choir. I remember standing on the bleachers, belting out The Christmas Song. I also remember looking down and seeing my dad wedged between all the other parents as we crooned about chestnuts and Jack Frost. I remember him coming to my seventh grade play Oklahoma, even though I had no significant role. I remember he showed up to every band concert, choir concert, and Boy Scout Court of Honor that I ever had. He was there every time I played volleyball or basketball in our church leagues. He was there as I competed in Pinewood Derbies as a child, and he was also there the morning I got on a plane and headed for college.
He didn’t just make appearances at these events and call it good, either. He didn’t just come to my basketball games. He also spent countless hours shooting hoops with me on our fissured driveway. He didn’t just come to the Pinewood Derbies; he also spent hours with me, carefully sanding, crafting, weighting, and painting those little cars each year. At age eight he was there, awkwardly giving my brother and me the sex talk. At age 15, he was there discussing the joys and dangers of dating as I sat squeamishly in an overstuffed chair.
He always took an active interest and role in my day-to-day. I can still remember him leaning over my shoulder as he helped me work through perplexing algebra homework, and there wasn’t a night that he wasn’t available to help me, whether it was a shop project or a writing assignment. He made sure I was able to work my way through it.
Even when he was gone on business, I still remember the excitement I felt every night when he called home. He always had time to talk to me. He always had time to listen to the adventures of my day. And when he came home, he always handed me a gift that he’d picked out just for me.
As an older teenager, at a time when I (like most teenagers) was trying desperately to establish my independence, he was still there. He was there when I came home from dates, and he was always genuine in his interest to find out how I had faired. He was there when I came home from my late night job flipping burgers at Wendy’s. And, he was also there when the clock struck twelve on Saturday nights, making sure that I made it in before curfew.
That said, there’s something else you need to know about this man. My dad wasn’t just there for me. He was there just as often for all ten of his kids. Yes, ten.
I have nine brothers and sisters, and there isn’t one of them that couldn’t catalogue a completely similar, yet completely different account of ways in which my dad was individually there for them, too.
Everything he did for me, he did times ten. For every one-on-one outing he and I went on together, he went on nine others as well. He went to pretty much every band concert, choir concert, school play, karate tournament, cheerleading competition, basketball game, rugby game, and graduation ceremony that our schools and community put on over the course of thirty years. He was there. For all of it, and for all of us. Every time.
We also knew he’d be there at the dinner table enjoying family time every night. We knew he would be coming home from work and asking us how our days were. We knew he’d be there for help with anything we needed, really. And even though he wasn’t always physically in the same places we were, we always knew where we could find him, which is just one more way that he was always there for each of us.
When it came to being there, my dad was the textbook definition of a real dad. Some dads, unfortunately, are not.
Some dads don’t get it. They don’t understand.
Dads who don’t understand never comprehend what it actually means to a child when he is there, no matter where there is. He also doesn’t realize just what it means to a child when he is not there. He doesn’t realize the lasting way that his child is affected. He doesn’t realize that not being there says something very specific to his child. I don’t love you, and I don’t care about you.
I could dive into truckloads of scientific studies and data showing the effects that not being an active part of his child’s life might have on that child. I could demonstrate evidence that the children of many such fathers are at a higher risk for poor health, or how they get involved in more insalubrious and dangerous behaviors with their peers. I could show you daunting numbers to prove that they are at an elevated risk for sexual abuse. We could discuss how kids with dads who aren’t there are more likely to struggle with depression, antisocial behaviors, honesty, or drug use. We could even get into the higher likelihoods that their children will participate in criminal activity or, God forbid, kill themselves.
But I won’t. Discussing statistics and data like this is often a pointless endeavor. Fathers who don’t make themselves available for their kids have long ago rationalized why that’s okay. They look at such statistics and they immediately put themselves on the side of the exempt. They tell themselves that their child isn’t one who will be depressed because of it. They tell themselves thattheir child’s behavioral problems certainly aren’t due to neglect. In fact, their child isn’t at a higher risk for anything at all. They, and their children, are always the exception.
Yet, you tell these same fathers that a package of uncooked chicken has a 2% chance of being contaminated with Salmonella, and they make sure to barbecue it beyond its ability to maintain any taste or tenderness. Just in case.
To these dads, I would simply say this. Figure it out. And do it now, before it’s too late.
No matter where there is, real dads must make sure they are there. Always.
Real dads get it. It’s not about them anymore. Once that title of father is theirs, they have a permanent place in the backseat of life for at least the next 18 years, so they kick their feet up and get comfortable with it.
When contemplating all of this, I have to ask myself, how do dads not see that it is their obligation and duty to be there for their children? How do they not see that everything their children will and won’t become is dependent on whether or not they are there for them? Do they not get that every time they choose to watch a sports game or go bowling with the guys instead of to their daughter’s preschool graduation or to their son’s peewee football game, it offers them that one strong, yet precise message? I don’t love you, and I don’t care about you.
Do they not understand that when a child feels that his father doesn’t love him or doesn’t care about him, he will go find that love and care from somewhere or someone else? Do they really want to leave the “somewhere or someone else” up to serendipity? Few kids will land in good places when they do.
Real dads are there. They make themselves available. They cancel other less important plans. They help each of their children feel the special love that only comes while sitting next to Dad, talking through impossible predicaments. Real dads make sure that each of their children looks up and sees their fathers’ outstretched arms each and every time they fall down. Real dads are there every time their children look into the crowd. Real dads leave no other options on the table.
How many more stories must be written before, as a society, we stand up and demand more of the fathers of this world? How many of our children will grow up conflicted, introverted, or shallow because fathers never had the time necessary for their ultimate development? How many more of our children must we watch turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the void of a father who wasn’t there? How many of our children will need to join gangs or end up in prison before we believe in the importance of this concept? How many more of our children must we find breathless and pale before we, as a society and as individuals, put the kind of emphasis on this that it must carry.
Now let me ask you this.
As a dad, what story do you want told about you? If Hollywood were to produce a major blockbuster centered on your relationship with your child, and whether or not you were there for your child, how would you want your character to be portrayed?
Call me crazy, but I’m guessing most fathers wouldn’t want to be made the villain of that story. I’m guessing it would break their hearts to see themselves portrayed as a neglectful, angry, or negligent parent who wasn’t there or who didn’t show up. I’m guessing it would be upsetting for them to watch just how their slipshod and inattentive actions shaped and changed their children’s lives for the worst. I’m guessing they would cringe as they witnessed the bad choices their children made which were directly attributed to them not being there.
No dad that I know would want to be made the villain. Being portrayed as the hero is so much more rewarding and exciting. What dad wouldn’t want the world thinking he’s the cat’s meow? What dad wouldn’t want audiences leaving with moist eyes because of the example he set? What dad wouldn’t want to see all of the ways his child thrived and succeeded in life because he was always attentive, he was always focused, and he was always there?
In all reality, a major blockbuster is being written about every father and his child right now. It’s being written in the heart of his child, in the mind of his child, and in the countenance of his child every day, for better or worse, and whether he’s there or not. The only thing missing is the theme music.
The world will see his child. The people of the world will watch the film which he is producing, directing, and in which he is co-starring. Over the course of his child’s life, every man, woman, and child with whom she comes in contact will watch his great masterpiece. Every teacher, peer, friend, and teammate will scrutinize it. Every co-worker, colleague, and professional will cast their judgment one way or the other. The critics will never be in short supply, and they will always be eager to hand out either grand praises or poor reviews.
So really, I guess the question is this. Over the duration of his child’s life, as the rest of the world experiences who his child is and what she has ultimately become, what does a real dad want them to see? Does he want them to see the final product of a dad who was there? Or does he want them to see the scraps of a child whose dad rarely made it?
I hope that every dad goes for the happy ending. I think we’ve all cried through enough movies about deadbeat dads.
Real dads do what they have to do to be there. They give up anything that might be stopping them from showing up in the scenes of their children’s lives.
For all dads, the winds of life can easily blow them between perceived greatness and looming failure. Challenges and trials will always rear their ugly heads, pressuring any dad to put good fathering on the back burner. These are the times when real dads refuse to take the easy route. These are the times when real dads refuse to not be there. They refuse to abandon their children. They understand that abandonment is always the easier route.
It is no different for me. I must be just as dedicated and careful as any other real dad. Those same winds have thrown me against the rockiest of shores. They have picked me up and slammed me against the walls of life on more than one occasion. There have been times when being there for Noah was the last thing I felt like I could do. There have been times when the overpowering events in my life left me feeling washed out and burnt up. In those times I somehow always found a way to get lost in the life of my son. And I never regretted it, because getting lost in him was the only way I was ever able to find what I needed to get moving again.
Noah is still young. I can guarantee that there will be a lifetime of opportunities presented which will test my true staying power as a real dad. Those tests will be there for every father. And when the time comes, they must pass the test, and they must do it with flying colors.
When fathers are there, and as they do pass those tests, their children hardly even know it. A real dad’s being there simply becomes an expected piece of the puzzle that will never be fully appreciated until their kids are grown and have children of their own. A real dad’s being there keeps them full and happy. This is their reward, and this is how it should be.
If dads aren’t there, however, their children will know. It will weigh heavily on them. They will constantly feel the resulting emptiness and sadness in their lives. They will crave a cure for the missing pieces, and they’ll find their own way to fill the holes.
Real dads make sure they’re there so that such tragedies never happen. It’s that simple.
Several dads may ask, how do I fit it in? What about time for me and the things I want to do? In a later chapter, we’ll discuss the time that real dads should make and give to themselves. For now, real dads shouldn’t worry about it. First, they should worry about being there for their children.
There will be plenty of time for them, their significant others, and all the other important things and people in their lives. Their children don’t have an event for them to attend every day of the week. Their children probably won’t need help with their homework every single night. Their children will grow and become more and more independent. There will be plenty of time for them to have and do everything that is a priority to them.
What’s imperative is that they’re there when they need to be. Every… single… time.
Real dads don’t become clichés. And they don’t let their children become the next sad movie.
Real dads are there.
Dan Pearce, Single Dad Laughing
PS. Today’s post is the seventh chapter in a read-along of my new book The Real Dad Rules (which will go on through February of next year). Don’t wait to read the rest of The Real Dad Rules! Get your own copy today (Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Hardcover, or visit the official Real Dad Rules webpage for signed copies). Get it for yourself. Get it for your kids. Give it as a gift. Just get it, and get in on the conversation!
While I wrote this book to everyday dads (from an everyday dad), I believe that its message can be applied to and appreciated by mothers and fathers alike. And, if you believe in the message of The Real Dad Rules, and if you love what you’ve read so far, please do Noah and me two huge favors! First, please share this page with your friends and family. Second, please take a second and leave a five-star review on Amazon (or Nook/iBooks).