What My 'Fun' Dad Taught Me About Parenting, and How My Mom Made It Possible

Since having kids, I've come to understand that my dad wasn't just teaching me to be a good person -- he was also teaching me to be a good parent.
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By any definition, I've always been a Daddy's Girl. Maybe it was because he was in medical school when I was little and was gone much of the time, so when we saw him it was a special treat. Maybe it was because he always seemed to have fun being with my sister and me -- being with us was never a chore, but a delight. Maybe it was because everything he said and did made his love for me not just obvious, but room-fillingly, all-encompassingly unequivocal. Regardless of the reason, I grew up adoring him and he doted on me.


To me, my father was heroic, nearly mythic. I believed every word he said -- whether he was teaching me something true, like the names of the bones in the body, or telling a wild tale about how licorice was made in plastic factories. He sang to me, read to me and acted out stories in mini-plays we put on as a family. His voice contained magic.

So when he taught me lessons, I listened. Whether he was leading by example or telling and retelling some of his quirky sayings, he was teaching me to follow my dreams, to be honest and kind, to respect myself and others. Basically, to be a good person. Since having kids, however, I've come to understand that he wasn't just teaching me to be a good person -- he was also teaching me to be a good parent.

Here are the most important things my father taught me about being a parent.

1. If the best you can do is the best you can do, then that's the best you can do.
It's a silly, obvious saying, isn't it? But it's an important, comforting one to remember. My parents, like many parents, always wanted my sister and me to try our hardest and to be our best. And if doing our best meant getting a B, coming in third place or not making any goals in soccer, they were still proud of us. We didn't do things to be better than other kids; we did them to prove to ourselves what we could accomplish. If trying our hardest meant we weren't number one, then that was still great, because we did the best that we could do.

It's very easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of pitting your child against another parent's. Oh, your kid was potty-trained first? Well, mine learned to read first. Competing over these kinds of milestones is ridiculous. If my 4-year-old still wears a pull-up to bed, then you know what? It's the best he can do and I'm proud of him.

2. It's never too late.
My father went to medical school at 30, after he already had two kids and an established career as a pharmacist. Medical school is difficult enough, but for an older student with a wife and two small children, it was much harder. So why did he do it? Because he wanted to be a doctor. He knew that time would pass -- if he went to medical school, he'd be a doctor; if he didn't, he'd just be older.

You know the cliché about marrying your father? Yeah, I married a man who went to law school at 30. I think about them both when I get caught up in all the things I haven't accomplished, both as a person and as a parent. I try to remember there is no timetable for children or even adults, for that matter. When am I going to publish a book? Not anytime soon. When am I going to take my kids to Disney World? Not anytime soon. But just because it hasn't happened yet, doesn't mean it won't happen ever. It's never too late.

3. Give the kids the last bite.
For as long as I've known my dad (which is 30-ahem years), he's never had the last bite of a treat. The last black olive, the last cherry, the last cookie -- whatever we're snacking on or sharing -- it used to belong to my sister or me; now it goes to our sons. As a kid, I would happily gobble it up, but as I grew older, I started to protest, telling my dad he should just finish whatever it was. No, he would say with a smile, nothing tastes as good as seeing you enjoy what you're eating.

It's sweet, isn't it? But it's about more than just the treat. That small gesture was a way to show us that he loved us more than anything else. Our happiness always came first. Our pleasure was his pleasure. Now that I have my own kids, I understand how you can be just as happy going without so that others can have. When my son wanted the last chocolate-covered strawberry I received as a recent birthday present, I handed it over, of course. And I smiled when he smiled eating it.

4. There's a reason there are blue houses and yellow houses.
I used to roll my eyes at this one. Duh, Dad, of course they make blue houses and yellow houses because different people want different things. But that was precisely his point: different people want different things. You might think blue is the best color for a house, but your neighbor might think yellow is. And while you may not be in agreement, you're both right. Your neighbor's opinion is no less valid than yours. Even if they're radically different, even if you don't agree with them or understand them, you still need to respect other people's opinions and decisions.

This one is pretty much a welcome to the world of parenting. Every instant of every parent's parenting life is subjective. Not only do I sometimes disagree with my spouse, my neighbor or my friends, but I often wonder if I would have made a different choice on a different day. Just because I use a parenting technique or rule with my kid doesn't mean everyone or anyone else needs to use it. We all have to find what works for us, our children and our families. And if you're doing that in a blue house, great; if you're doing it in a yellow house, that's great, too.

Now that I'm a parent, I know that one of the reasons I was able to adore my father so completely was because of my mother. For years, my mom primarily raised my sister and me by herself. I know now that the repetitive, day-to-day parenting struggles are maddening, frustrating, depressing and exhausting. So exhausting. And she did it all.

My dad was able to be the "fun" parent because my mom was the "everything else" parent. She made and enforced rules. She did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, school stuff, house stuff, financial stuff -- if it needed to be done, she did it. As a child, I never saw how she maintained the house and spent her whole day working for our family. Now, as a mother myself, I know how incredibly important (and thankless) her role was. So, on this Father's Day, I also want to thank my mother, because without her I wouldn't have had the kind of dad I'm celebrating.