That little boy looked up at me with a face that all but broke into a smile and seemed to say, you're my father aren't you.
A stream of love poured from him and flooded my heart in a way it had never been flooded. I was overwhelmed with an emotion that couldn't be described then or now. It was, well, heavenly.
In a world that often leaves us longing for innocence and goodness, I've been blessed to experience it in its purest form twice. In those initial looks into the eyes of both of my sons on their birth days, I witnessed an innocence I've never seen outside of those two moments. Don't get me wrong, my life is surrounded by wonderful people. Family members and friends have passed through my life leaving nothing but goodness behind. But, every one of them has worn the unmistakeable scars of a lifetime of mistakes.
Babies, though, they come into the world with clean slates. As clean as slates get in this life, anyhow. But I believe even in their purity they sense the presence of evil. And maybe with our boys' first looks at me, they noticed the scars of my own endless imperfections. If so, I thank them for hiding their fear and disappointment. Instead, what I saw in their early stares were confident requests - please make me great. Don't let me be overcome by wickedness and hate - just please make me great.
I don't know what other dads hear in the delivery room. I hope they hear please make me great. Because as true as it is that our children come into the world with a human nature that will point them toward selfishness and anger - if you don't believe me ask two infants to play with one toy - they are looking toward their parents to lead them in the other direction. It's a powerful invitation parents must accept.
Many moms jump at this opportunity. Too many dads, though, either flee in fear of the responsibility of it all, or have bought into the cultural notion that dads are best served using their hands to walk the bacon home, not guiding their children to greatness.
Compounding the challenge - and dads' fears - the world seems to have settled on a misguided and unrealistic definition of a great kid. I'm not sure how we got here, but the growing assumption is every kid was born to get straight A's, lead their Little League in home runs, and be elected student council president and the captain of every team lucky enough to have them. The final exam for great kids has been reduced to SAT scores and the amount of love they receive from the Ivy League. The world has handed dads a blueprint for a great kid, which has ironically left dads more lost than ever.
I have great news, dads. I'm going to take some of the pressure off, or at least redirect it. Our kids will ultimately have their ideal of greatness defined by their parents, no matter what the world implies. This includes you, dad. In the last chapter I talked about the importance of dads having faith in something. Here is why. Because when our kids plead with us in their early years - please make me great - they're blind to the world's definition of greatness. Greatness for them is simply a picture of what they see in you. This will inevitably beg the question - how do you define your own greatness?
If we fumble haphazardly through that answer, or worse yet, demonstrate no answer at all, our kids will ultimately default to the world's ideals. And when you default to unrealistic expectations, regardless of where they come from, you either wilt under their pressure and give up on greatness all together, or you arrive exhausted and sadly disappointed when you meet them.
So dads, we have to head our kids off at the pass. But how?
First, you need to understand that until your kids reach the age of 10, or a little later if you're lucky, you are their hero. For an entire decade, no matter what you say or do, your kids want to be just like you. Use this time wisely; be a salesman. Commit that period of your life to attracting your kids to a greatness rooted in the love and guidance of their father. You, after all, are directly responsible for their invitation to this party called life. One day they will appreciate you took their invitation seriously, or else resent that someone else attending the party valued their presence there more than you did.
Being your kid's hero can sound scary, especially if you can't fly, project lightning bolts from your fingers, or lift skyscrapers above your head. But relax, dad, there are no costumes or superhuman powers required for this job. In fact, there are none permitted. Because 10 year olds who are open minded about their heroes become 11 year olds suddenly picky about their authenticity. If you've spent 10 years convincing them you can zap a mountain lion from a thousand yards away with a single bolt of lightning from your forefinger, when they turn 11, you'd better be ready to fire away. And don't miss, or your child won't be off mountain lion hunting, he'll be off looking for a new hero.
The reality is we dads should spend a large portion of our kids' formative years auditioning to become their permanent hero. And when the day comes for them to make their final choice, they will base their decision on one qualification: Are you who you say you are.
It's true. One day our babies become young people smart enough to determine if the man who claims he can fire lightning bolts from his finger actually can, and if the dad who teaches the value of honesty is actually an honest man.
I can give my own dad no higher praise than when I tell you he always represented what he said. I could probably think all day and not come up with a single example of my dad employing the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do teaching method. Oh, I'm sure at some point he explained to me the importance of honoring the speed limit while cruising along a tick or two above it, but when it came to important things like work ethic and how you treat others, when he preached the value of personal integrity, my dad was always who he said he was.
I can't say strongly enough how important that was. When I entered my teen years and beyond, and my dad's words and advice suddenly became more important to my transition from a boy to a man, I knew his guidance was credible. I may not have always used it wisely, but I never questioned whether it was wise. I'm thankful I was never forced to go off searching for a role model outside my home. There were definitely other adults in my family and community who had a tremendous influence on me, but I always measured what they had to offer against my own dad before I invested in their guidance.
Several years ago, Charles Barkley, a former NBA star and current NBA broadcaster, did a Nike commercial in which he said, "I am not a role model." Barkley went on to explain, "Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." The commercial became controversial because many people believe our public "stars" have an obligation to be role models for our kids.
I have to admit, I'm with Barkley. If I ever hear one of our two sons claiming anyone other than me or their mother or other close family members as their role model, I will feel like we've failed somewhere along the way. That's not to say that athletes or stars on other stages don't have influential stories, but to model any sort of a role I want my kids to adopt in their lives, one has to be in their lives frequently enough to demonstrate you are who you say you are. Our kids don't get to see intimately enough the hard work many of these stars put into being the people they idolize, nor do they get to see up close and personal the mistakes these folks make, and more importantly, how they respond to them. For the most part, they only get to see them dunk a basketball. Given that my wife and I both live well south of 6 feet tall, I don't like either of our sons' chances of following the path of basketball dunking to their individual greatness.
In the next part of this chapter, I'm going to talk about some tangible things I think dads need to do to teach their kids. But here's the thing dads, if you aren't committed to being your kid's role model, if you're not going to be who you're telling them you are, you can skip that part. Because the most important element of being a teacher is credibility. And if you're not honest with your kids about who you are, then who you think they can or should be will mean nothing to them.
I hope you'll come back next time as I talk about living life inside the box.