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Am I Doing This Right? Lessons On Fatherhood From Great Dads

A father and son at sundown on the beach.
Image CreditMoumita / 

Any success I’ve had in daddom is greatly attributable to a couple of fantastic dads in my life — my old man and my father-in-law.


Am I doing this right? It’s a question I have often pondered as a dad. And Father’s Day naturally prompts such reflection.

Am I doing this right? and the other side of that coin — What am I doing wrong? — have popped up plenty of times over my 17-plus years of fatherhood. The questions began almost immediately, as I struggled to install our newborn’s car seat, for instance. Am I doing this right? echoed in my head, as did white-hot rage at the makers of the sadistic car seat and some colorful words and expressions I had learned from my dad many years before. What am I doing wrong? has come up quite a bit in recent years, as our tween and two teens seem to believe being seen in public with their parents is tantamount to hanging out with the kid who wipes boogers on his pant leg. 

I know I try to be a good dad. I know I love my kids more than my life. I know none of them are broken, and that’s victory in and of itself after nearly two decades in the dad business. Despite the challenges, being a father remains one of the smartest things I’ve done in a lifetime of questionable decisions (as the previous owner of a Michael Jackson “Thriller” jacket, the “Thompson Twins Greatest Hits,” and a Chevette, trust me on this one).  

Two Champion Dads

Any success I’ve had in daddom is greatly attributable to a couple of fantastic dads in my life — my old man and my father-in-law. Guys that grew up in post-World-War II America and grew kids with dignity, respect, and a moral compass. Much of the useful advice I’ve gotten about being a dad and a man came from these two men. 

Advice like: 

1. Don’t be an idiot. More so, Of all the things you could choose to be, why would you choose to be an idiot? And of the idiots, my favorite saying from the old man has to be, He’s so dumb he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the directions were on the heel. In short, don’t be like that guy. Don’t be an idiot.   

2. Nobody owes you anything. These guys worked in factories. They used their hands and their brains to support their families. They spent their formative years mowing lawns, picking green beans for the local canning plant, baling hay on farms, and delivering newspapers on their bikes. They learned early the value of hard work and a dollar, and that nothing in life is free. Let’s just say these are not “Great Resignation” kind of guys. 

3. Feelings are poor substitutes for facts. In this reality-bending era of “speak your truth” and so-called spectrums of identity, the fathers I have admired taught me to speak the truth and identify with the real. My old man would not recognize the world he left nearly 15 years ago. He would have plenty to say about it, I’m sure of that, including some colorful words and expressions he first learned from his father. 

4. Never lose your sense of humor. The old man loved to laugh. And his was big and booming and joyous. I can still hear it at times in my own laughter, and in my son’s. My father-in-law possesses a wit sharper than a Ginsu knife. One of the great pleasures of my life has been listening to their stories and their laughter. Their lesson has not been lost: Don’t take things too seriously. As the old man used to say, nobody gets out of this world alive. 

In this absurd time, you either laugh or you cry. The lesson is of immeasurable value when, for instance, while changing a diaper you are greeted with a hurricane-force wind of projectile poop that defies the laws of physics and befouls you and everything around you.  

5. Remember, you’re not alone. My role models could never be accused of being overly demonstrative in their faith, but faith has long been fundamental to their lives — and how they approached fatherhood. Sure, my father-in-law used to torment his German-speaking Lutheran confirmation instructors to madness, and my dad once made a Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary question his mission, but they have carried with them a belief in something bigger than themselves. They both put faith at the center of their lives and the lives of their families. 

They say that 90 percent of being a parent is showing up. There’s a good deal of truth to that. Too many fathers in a selfish society are refusing to be there for their kids. My dad role models showed up — in the good times and bad. They could never be accused of being perfect men, just like the man who reveres them. But they never stopped trying, and they never stopped loving their children. 

I’d say that’s doing it right.

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