4 Key Parenting Lessons I Learned From My Unusual Childhood

My father was not an ordinary parent, and it was clear when I compared our life to my friends' lives that ours was not ordinary. And yet, as I've grown up and become a parent myself, I've realized that my father did some things very well -- and taught me some important lessons about being a good parent.
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I had an unusual childhood.

I was raised mostly by my father -- my mother was rarely home. She worked full-time and got a PhD and law degree while my sister and I were growing up. My father, as a college professor, had a more flexible schedule, so he did the day-to-day tasks of parenting. In and of itself, that's only a little unusual. But what made it more unusual was, well, my father.

My father was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He even looked and dressed the part. But even more than that, he was a deeply creative, deeply sensitive person who saw and felt the world in ways that made life both more beautiful and more difficult for him. Daily life was not straightforward for my father, especially the daily life of raising children. The concepts of housework and routines were always challenging for him; the house was usually messy, we were often late getting places (and were almost always the last ones picked up) and until we learned to do it ourselves, we had messy hair, unmatched clothes and were rarely dressed for the weather.

My father was not an ordinary parent, and it was clear when I compared our life to my friends' lives that ours was not ordinary. And yet, as I've grown up and become a parent myself, I've realized that my father did some things very well -- and taught me some important lessons about being a good parent.

Be playful. My father loved to play. He played with toys with us, he built dollhouses out of boxes with us, he drew us stories and told us stories using silly voices. He never took himself too seriously. As an adult, I see too many parents who see their role as caregiver, chauffeur and disciplinarian. My father did those things -- sort of -- but he treasured fun. My father also innately understood that the language of children is play, that the best way to connect and build relationships with children is to play with them, something too many parents don't understand. We loved being with him, and he with us. Which leads me to the second lesson...

Do things together. We spent a lot of time with my father, just hanging out. He had work and we had school and friends, but if there wasn't something else we were supposed to be doing, we were together. Those are some of my best childhood memories.

Too many parents and children live parallel lives. They may share meals or go on vacation together, but there isn't a lot of hanging out time. That's a mistake.

We'd read books, or draw or paint (my father was a very talented artist, and there were always art materials around), or go to the beach to watch the sun set. We spent a lot of time in all sorts of museums, mostly art museums -- not so much to teach us art appreciation, although it did, but mostly because my father loved museums. He'd take us to the park and push us on swings (we loved the Under Push, when he pushed us so high he could run under us, a bit terrifying in retrospect as he was 6-4), but our activities weren't just kid activities. We did what my father liked to do, like going to museums, libraries, concerts -- or just sitting on the beach staring at the horizon. Which made it more fun for him -- and opened up the world for us. My father very much wanted us to learn about the world. Which leads me to the third lesson...

Give children independence. I had a lot of independence as a child. I was a bit of a free-range child, actually. Some of this had to do with my father's general spaciness (knowing where we were at all times was not his forte). But a lot of it had to do with how he approached parenting. He taught us what he thought we needed to keep ourselves safe and well, and then let us go do it. He made sure I could swim and that I knew where and when to go in the water and how to get out of rip currents -- and then let me go to the beach alone. He taught me to skate and how to recognize unsafe ice and what to do if I fell in -- and then let me take my skates to the pond alone. He taught me how to navigate and find my way, and what to do if I encountered strangers -- and then let me go around the neighborhood or to stores alone. There were definitely some iffy moments in that alone time -- but I used what he taught me and was fine.

This is one I struggle with as a parent. My children are so precious to me; I'd never forgive myself if something happened to them that I could have prevented. But when I look back on my childhood, I know that my father's approach gave me a resilience and resourcefulness that have served me incredibly well as an adult. By trusting me, he helped me learn to trust myself.

It's not that we weren't precious to my father -- we knew that we were. In fact, that was the last and best lesson...

Be steadfast. My father showed up for every game, every event, every moment that mattered. He might not have been on time, but he was there. He was at our side, too, whenever we were sick or sad or needed a sympathetic ear. He was not an effusive parent, he was always a bit fuzzy on the details of our lives and was not the sort to join the PTO, but he was always there. We knew that he would love us no matter what, that he wouldn't judge us, that he'd do anything he could for us and that his big arms were always ready to gather us up into a bear hug.

"Steadfast" may seem like an odd word. It doesn't bring to mind the big shows of loving support and praise that we tend to associate with parenting, but I think my father had it right. There was something about his constancy that was deeply comforting. Just as his trust helped me to trust myself, his steadfast love gave me courage as I went out into the world. I could always feel him, and always knew that if I slipped, he'd reach out to steady me. Not to rescue me -- he raised me not to need rescuing -- but steady me, get me back on course and on my way again.

My father died suddenly and unexpectedly 10 years ago this month. I will forever miss him. I don't want to over-romanticize things; my father had his failings, and my childhood was not always carefree and easy. But even still, I am so very grateful to and for my father. The things I like best about myself as a person and a parent are the things I learned from him.

I hope that I can live the lessons my father taught me, and give my children the same resilience, resourcefulness, courage and fun he gave me.


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