That message is unpopular in some circles. Many folks today don't believe a dad or anyone else should be telling a child who they should be. I disagree. If I don't influence who my child becomes, someone else will. And who could possibly be more invested in who my child becomes than me or his mother?
Sadly, the answer to that is many people. During the years I worked with fatherless kids, most of them had one thing in common. They resented the fact other adults cared enough about them to tell them what to do when their own dads wouldn't. As much as our kids pressure us to believe they don't like being told what to do - they do. They figure out early on the adults who take the time to tell them to do something are the adults who believe they can become something. When those adults aren't the child's parents - the two people the child presumes wanted him in this world to begin with - he wonders why. The answers he comes up with usually leave him feeling rejected.
So I have to tell you, where some see telling a child what to do as a roadblock to self-discovery and independence, a child sees it as a tangible sign of love.
Think about it. Wherever you are in your life at this very moment is one little point that reflects the culmination of hundreds and maybe thousands of personal decisions. All of those decisions were informed. They might have been ill-informed, mis-informed, or wisely-informed, but they were made based on the combined lessons you learned from the people who cared enough to teach you and those you learned on your own through education and personal experience.
Here's the challenge with children making informed decisions. Their brains are ill-equipped to do it. Until they reach their mid-twenties, their brains aren't fully prepared to make informed decisions. That's why our children aren't decision makers at all; they're loosely wrapped bundles of emotional responses waiting to unbind on various triggers in their lives: something someone says, a look, a simple chore request from a parent. Quite cruelly, that's how the brain is designed and develops. As children grow older, the wires of the brain start to connect to its internal holding tank for past experiences and lessons learned. More and more, this information will be factored into their choices.
That's why dads can consider themselves electricians. Our kids brains are roughly framed houses waiting for the electrician to wire them in a way that when the light switches are turned on, they bring light where light was intended. The stove comes on when you ask it to. The ceiling fan spins when you flip the ceiling fan switch. But have you ever experienced wires that got crossed, maybe you flip the ceiling fan switch and the stove comes on?
Or worse yet, have you ever tried turning on the lights in a house that didn't get wired at all?
It's true that a child's brain begins to make connections as they grow older. But unless someone is in their lives teaching them appropriate responses to situations in life, or preparing them for responses they'll need to make to future situations, the part of the brain that makes decisions, the part that is wired to factor in cause and effect, will essentially be a part of the brain the electrician forgot to connect for service. How many times have you wondered why a child or young adult doesn't think before they act? Just make sure you understand, that is not a process that just happens. It requires an electrician.
As a dad aware of this brain development process in our boys, I've decided to raise them in a box. There are a lot of people and situations in the world working to wire our boys' brains for me. Some of them intentional. Some of them are simply coming through our boys' endless observations of people and life. So I build four walls around them that will help me - and eventually them - filter what they hear and see. I'm completely committed to influencing how they tackle future decisions in their lives. Because again - if it's not my influence, it will be someone else's.
The first wall is simple. There are many laws that guide what we can and can't do in life. We have a government system that builds and enforces laws that will presumably set us up for a functional existence. I don't always agree with the laws, but that doesn't mean they're optional for me. Nor will they be for my kids. So they are one of the constraints that have to guide their choices.
I talked about the second wall in the previous chapter. My faith. I am a Christian, so my faith is informed by the holy bible. It has been instrumental in building the morals and values system I try to follow. When it comes to guidance on how I am supposed to treat others, the bible is my primary reference. Therefore, it will be my primary reference for instructing our boys how to treat others. Maybe you have a different faith built on a different text. If it promotes treating others with love and respect, then build that wall for your kids.
The third wall is a simple one: a father's wisdom. Whatever I've discovered to be real and true about this world, I feel obligated to share with our boys. Most of my wisdom comes from what I've learned through the countless mistakes I've made in my own life. If those lessons aren't imparted on my kids, that becomes the biggest mistake of them all. Fathers also have a golden opportunity, and maybe even a responsibility, to make sure the wisdom they've gained from others gets passed down to their children. The lessons our parents, grandparents, family, and friends have learned and shared with us aren't like most commodities in life. Their values actually increase the more they become used and worn.
The final wall is our kids themselves. They are born with certain gifts, and as their fathers, we need to direct information into their lives that will feed their desire and capacity to discover them. I see too many fathers trying to force their kids down a path to the NBA or the NFL, which is the path of greatest resistance for a child designed to be a musician or an artist. Too many children display signs they are gifted to be something other than what their parents desire them to be, and instead of responding with encouragement to those signs, the parents herd them a little tighter down the vocational path they've envisioned for them.
In the end, teaching becomes as much about what we keep out of our kids lives as what we put in. In this day and age, I'm not so sure it's not more important. Putting four walls around our kids isn't a form of imprisonment, but rather a father defining what his kids do and don't need to know to become healthy adults with the capacity to make healthy decisions. We owe it to our kids to stand guard over those walls. They deserve an opportunity to grow up inside a box that muffles the white noise the world constantly hurls at them, polluting the environment they develop in.
Dads, your kids are going to follow a path in life. Every life follows one. You have the power to open the gates to the ones that just might work for your child, and close and lock the ones you know are fruitless. Someone is absolutely going to be a gatekeeper for your child. The question is: will it be you?
The next time, what happens when my child picks the lock and heads down that fruitless path?