From the age of 10, my life was chaotic.
My dad developed mental illness and his behavior affected the entire family – me, my mother and my two older siblings. Not only was my family life crazy, but the nation was in the middle of the Vietnam War and anti-war demonstrations were being held across the nation. Race riots rattled the nation, too, as many white Americans came to realize how badly our culture had been treating blacks, especially in the South. I became fearful our nation would collapse under the strain of those tumultuous times.
When I was 18, I left home and attended a very strict religious college. I was searching for safety and certainty in a very unsafe and uncertain world. For a time I found both, until I realized the religious organization was a scam and a fraud.
Suddenly my fragile sense of security and certainty dissolved. I didn’t know what to believe. I experienced a lot of thrashing about until I regained a sense of balance and developed humility about my own ignorance and fallibility.
Eventually, at age 29, I got a teaching job at a local high school. I got married and we had two children.
My dad had died when I was 22. As I reflected on my childhood, I came to a decision about the kind of father I wanted to be to my own children. I developed a rhyme to encapsulate my goal: “Be the dad you wish you had.”
That goal guided me through my children’s growing-up years. When they entered their teen years, I read a childrearing book that taught me some important parenting skills: Observe and find what my children’s interests were. Next, find ways to encourage and strengthen their natural interests. Third, nudge them when needed in the right direction without forcing them to act in a prescribed way. Be both firm and flexible.
I worked at being the dad I wished I’d had. When my children developed into adults, I decided to change the relationship from acting like a parent to treating my children as my friends. My children are now in their mid-30s and are happily married. I have a close transparent relationship with both. We share our successes and failures as friends, just like I envisioned and hoped for.
Now I am a grandfather with lots of grandchildren. My new goal has become, “Be the granddad you wish you had.” One of my grandfathers died when I was a year old. The other bought the grandkids a horse, but didn’t talk to us much.
Being a grandfather for me is like trekking through fresh snow. I have to blaze the trail into unknown territory because I have no real examples to give me guidance.
I still follow the wisdom I got from that book. I find what my grandchildren’s interests are and then go alongside to encourage and help them. That means I work to spend time with them, doing the things they enjoy doing. My goal is to develop a relationship with each of them that is based on trust and love. I tell them I love them often, something neither my father nor grandfathers ever did to me.
All of us yearn for love and consistency and purpose in life. Stephen Covey, the author of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” wrote a book in his later years about what our lifelong goals should be. His response was, “To live, to love and to leave a legacy.”
My goal is to leave the legacy of a loving, kind and thoughtful father and grandfather who has led by example and instruction, rather than with authority or indifference.
In doing so, I am trying to change the chaos, insecurity and uncertainty of my own childhood into one of order, security, love and understanding.