I still remember the first time I suspected that, contrary to my early conceits, I might actually be a terrible father. When our oldest child was 2, I was clipping her fingernails and snipped her pinkie instead of the nail. As I saw the pinpoint of blood ooze from her tiny fingertip, I made a strange wailing sound, snatched her up, and ran her to the bathroom. I apologized profusely as I wrapped her finger in a complex set of bandages that effectively quadrupled the size of her pinkie. (Any parent will tell you that, if there’s anything more difficult than clipping the nails of a toddler, it’s trying to find a bandage that will fit her fingertip.)
She returned my apologies with a look of confusion. Truthfully, I don’t think she was aware that anything was wrong.
As a young man, I had imagined myself ideal father material, mainly because I loved holding cute babies at church and had served as a youth pastor for three years. So I was ready. Then my wife and I had our first child, and it became clear to me that I was anything but.
Since the finger-clipping mishap, I have doubted my parenting skills on several occasions. There were the times I should have been paying attention to my four children, but was preoccupied with something of profound importance, like checking my Facebook news feed for the tenth time that day. I would hear the sound of Thunk, thunk, thunk, THUNK, followed by crying, which every bad parent knows is the sound of your kid tumbling down the stairs, her head hitting each and every step along the way. There were the times when I got upset at my children for being cranky, disobedient, or otherwise unpleasant, and tried to browbeat them into having a better attitude instead of checking to see whether they had a fever of 103. They almost always did.
What was more revealing than my technical incompetency was my attitude, which could have been described charitably as “impatient” but was often something closer to “mean spirited.” Instead of correcting my children, I criticized. Instead of disciplining, I punished. I treated them as if they were short adults, not little children who were still learning. And each time I acted that way, I became more convinced that I was indeed a terrible dad. To this day, I don’t think that assessment is altogether wrong.
Where I was wrong was in assuming that I had to remain that way.
I had always been of the opinion that the best fathers were born as such. Whether through some function of genetics, upbringing, or a combination of the two, fatherhood was a skill that a man either possessed from the start or did not. And if a man did not have that gift, there was no hope of sizable growth, only marginal adjustment.
I felt this way for several reasons. First, we increasingly discover that so many aspects of our lives are dictated by genetics: our features, our predispositions to certain diseases, even elements of our personalities. It is not difficult to imagine that parenting skills might function in the same way. Second, when it comes to careers—which for men are often cast as the central feature of identity—there is a strong emphasis on aptitude: we should pursue careers for which we possess an intrinsic skill. It’s little wonder that men take that mentality and apply it to their parenting as well.
The belief was further reinforced whenever I observed a father in action at the playground or in the school hallway. I would watch these men as they communicated with their children, keeping their emotions in check and their smartphones in their pockets, unfazed amid the most epic of toddler meltdowns. And like a man who has just watched someone slam dunk while he has trouble dribbling, I concluded that these fathers must have been born with something that I lacked from the beginning. Nothing else could adequately explain the yawning gulf between us.
Inspired by Peter Chin contributing writer for Christianity Today
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