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Distilling Fatherhood Into the 10 Commandments of Daddy


I have found the fundamental laws of fatherhood. The skeptics said it couldn't be done.

Fatherhood is too complicated, they cried, to be reduced to capsule form. But complexity only added intrigue to the quest for guiding principles.

After all the emotions, all the yelling, and all the laughter, I have distilled the duties and demands down to a decade of Daddy dicta. Herewith, on behalf of all God's children and their male parents, the Ten Commandments of Daddy.

I. Hey, Dad, Be Big: Figuratively, that is. Fatherhood is still a star turn. But you're still the strongest guy in the house. That counts.

Consider some of the guys who have gone before you: Father Time, the Founding Fathers, God the Father. It's a powerful tradition. The kids expect some stature from you. You can't give this role a walk-through. Got to play it.

Now this doesn't mean you can choose any old vivid persona. After all, Genghis Khan was plenty vivid, and his kids didn't have an easy time. But you can't be a blank slate. The kids ought to know what the old man would think about this or that. You are the anvil on which they hammer out their deal with the world. Be a presence in their lives--and minds.

II. Hey, Dad, Be Small: Yes, this directly contradicts the First Commandment. I told you, fatherhood is complicated.

Don't be so big that you suck all the air out of the room. Give your kids a little space to move around in, to test their thoughts and strengths.

Take a back seat, figuratively speaking, three, four times a week. Say, "Maybe." Say, "I don't know." Now and then, tell the kids you're sorry. Plenty of things to apologize for: anger, inattention, bad career planning, lack of whatever. You'll feel brand-new.

III. Hey, Dad, Come Home: To be sure, the obligations of making a living can keep you out of the house. Lots of fathers have a day job and a night job. If that's your situation, God bless you, pal. You'll get no heat from me.

But if you can pay the bills without working double shifts, be home when you can. You don't have to be playing catch all the time or even talking to the kids. But at least be present. Get off the golf course. Head home. Nothing good can happen until you do.

IV. Honor Thy Father and Mother: This actually is the biblical Fourth Commandment. It's included here only because now that I am one of the guys getting honored, I like the sound of it much more than I did when I was a boy.

V. Bob and Weave: Stay light on your feet, Dad. Don't make too many hard-and-fast rules. Don't draw too many lines in the sand.

This doesn't mean anything goes; there are rules. It just means that fatherhood is an improvisation and that human hearts have a way with compromise.

Don't insist on having your way with the kids just because the rest of the world isn't always overly interested in the sound of your voice. There is a difference between authority and power. Have the first; don't abuse the second.

VI. Thou Shalt Not Dance in Front of Your Kids' Friends: My father once picked us up at a junior high school dance. As usual, he was wearing his wingtip shoes and that hat he got through the mail from Ireland. As we were walking out of the gym, he actually did a few seconds of the hully-gully with a horrified Margie Costanzo. My sister Kathy still has nightmares about it.

If you've got to dance, dance with Mom--in private.

VII. Save Your Money, Big Man: You know all those corny proverbs about pennies saved. If you're not careful, the kids will send you to the poorhouse $1.19 at a time. Think college tuition. Think down payment on their starter homes.

Although it's true that money can't buy happiness, it can buy lots of other stuff. Believe in compound interest, tax-free growth. For God's sake, champ, be ready for emergencies.

VIII. Spend Your Money, Tightwad: You see what I'm after here, don't you? F. Scott Fitzgerald said the sign of a first-rate mind was the ability to have two opposite opinions at the same time. Never mind that he fell victim to drink. You're a first-rate mind, Dad.

Spring for the glowing monster trading cards. If you've got the money, pop for that musical princess crown. What are you saving the money for, pal? College? Hah! You can't save enough anyway.

There is the future and then there is now. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is it.

IX. Never Go On an Amusement Park Ride With the Word 'Whirl' in Its Name: Even though you want to participate with the kids, to feel their gravity-defying thrill / terror / glee, you mustn't get on that ride with them. It's tough to be a good father when your central nervous system is on the fritz. Stay on the ground and wave.

X. This is Their Life, Not a Second Chance at Yours: It's tempting to make good on your own shortcomings through your children. Just because you didn't make the varsity doesn't mean Junior has to. Help them follow their path, not your road-not-taken.

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