What does it mean to be a good dad?
No one cared when the old bastard died, least of all, his children.
For most of his life, this small man thought of nobody but himself. In his mind, he was a ‘big man'; all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful.
But to everyone who knew him, he was a callous and troubled man. The Russians captured him during WW2 and subjected him to cruel ‘medical' experiments in one of their camps, resulting in the loss of one hand.
But it wasn't this trauma that turned him into a monster. According to accounts from relatives, he'd always been nasty, manipulative and conniving.
He began beating his son from a young age as a means to amplify his confected authority. Belittlement and criticism also featured on a daily basis. Sometimes the abuse was worse…
Over many years, the boy learned to absorb the violence, and each time his body met with fist and boot, he would shut down and in his mind, go somewhere else. Anywhere but there.
This was how my dad experienced childhood in the 1940's.
After years of mental and physical abuse, he escaped to Australia where he met and married my mum – also a victim of parental violence (from her mother).
When my Opa died, my dad refused to attend the funeral. Later, though, he flew the 16,000 km just to piss on his grave. His father should have been his idol, but instead, denied him any trace of childhood.
On reflection, I'm stunned that my parents managed to raise my sister and me with such love and affection. They should have been psychopaths.
The Opportunity of a Lifetime
As my daughters become women, I sometimes reflect on how my dad achieved what should be every father's dream – to be loved and respected as A Good Dad.
My son, Tommy will be seven in a few weeks, and lately, something curious has begun to happen.
I'll be in the middle of a job – often something complex – and I'll feel sudden a twinge of excitement.
It's because I know I'm going to have a tonne of adventures with this boy of mine – just as my dad did with me. It's a whole new feeling having a son that's approaching the ‘right age'.
How any man could not adore his children is difficult for me to understand. To misread the opportunity to achieve something so impactful is disappointing in the extreme.
Yet some men are so trapped by their own problems – present or past – they miss it altogether. And everyone suffers as a result.
I've had the benefit of an amazing dad. He didn't cure any diseases and he's not famous. His name doesn't appear on any buildings or freeway overpasses. He's never had a business card.
But in the last few years, as I've watched my son grow, I've given a lot of thought to how my dad raised me and why my childhood was so special.
The One Thing
My girls, Amy and Sarah, are both interesting, bright and beautiful girls.
Their mum and I split when they were very young. ‘Losing' my girls (meaning, I could no longer cuddle them every day) was the most painful thing I've ever experienced. It still affects me each time I think about it. They were (and still are) my princesses.
But both before and after the split, I created some wonderful memories with them. From as young as two, I took them on weekend excursions. Sometimes we'd head to the mountains where we'd make a small fire and cook marshmallows; other times we ventured further.
We would talk, we'd muck around and we'd explore. They'd tell me about their interests, their hopes, and their problems. I'd listen and share whatever knowledge I thought might help.
When they were very young, I took each of them on separate adventures so I could spend one-on-one time with them – just me and my little girl. Sarah and I took a 2,000 km trip to the desert where Mad Max was filmed, while Amy and I spent a few days in our nation's capital, Canberra.
Both experiences were beautiful, and we'll always have those memories.
Nowadays, our times together are less about parenting and more about friendship. We'll debate beliefs and values, explore entrepreneurial ideas, tackle homework assignments, and discuss boys, booze and peers.
It's only now that I see a common thread through our relationships. I've unwittingly done the same thing my dad did with me.
I've listened. Just like he did with me.
Plenty of dads listen only long enough to say what they want to say. Or they pretend to listen because they think most of what comes out of their kids' mouths is trivial.
But here's the thing. On a scale of living a hundred years, yes, whatever your kid's experiencing might well be trivial. But to them, right now, it's everything.
This was one of my dad's superpowers. He never trivialised what was happening in our lives.
Don't teach them. Show them.
My dad's other superpower was teaching by showing.
A lot of dads bark orders at their kids. They espouse wisdom (platitudes, mostly) and they use the word ‘should' a lot. My dad didn't do much of that.
He didn't tell me how to work hard – he showed me. The same with doing right by people and being honest in all his dealings.
He showed me how to drive a car; then later, how to control one in difficult terrain. He showed me how to light a campfire, how to use a high-powered rifle, how to fix things and make things, and how to do something scary like put myself forward and offer my services to people.
That's how I got published at the age of 16. That's how I drove and photographed a Lamborghini when I was 18. It's how I became the youngest motoring magazine photographer in the country.
It was all thanks to my dad taking the time to listen, encourage and show me things.
Also, he didn't teach me how to treat women – he demonstrated it by the way he treated my mum. He was a protector, a servant, a soulmate.
But he wasn't right about everything.
He also told me to stay a virgin until I found the woman I planned to marry. It almost worked. My fiancé cheated on me after three years together so all bets were off after that!
But for the most part, my dad's role as a father was (and still is) a masterclass in effective parenting.
- He listened attentively – especially when I had an issue I was trying to explain and resolve.
- He proved he'd listened by reflecting back and reaffirming what I'd just said.
- He offered suggestions – often enthusiastically – but he rarely preached.
- He stepped up to help, which validated my issues and took a lot of the pressure off. He suggested potential paths forward, which built a mindset of ‘everything has a solution'.
- He chose to spend time with me instead of always chasing dollars. We lived simply, but my dad was always around while most dads were chasing accolades or socialising with their mates.
- He led by example. When something was beyond his skill set or interest, he encouraged me to learn from others and to practice.
- He trusted me to make wise choices but was quick to step in and give clear direction if I messed up.
- He never undermined my mum's wishes. They made most of the parenting decisions together and they backed each other up.
- He praised me when I did well – never in gushing fashion but with a firm, “You did a really good job there, son.”
- He was honest and unambiguous. He taught me: “Let your ‘yes' be Yes and your ‘no' be No, and leave it at that.” The moment you say things like, ‘I promise' or ‘I guarantee', you lose credibility.
- He was very funny – sometimes cringe-worthy. I often catch myself doing exactly the same expressions and voices my dad used on me, and getting the same response from my son. I love it as much for my son's reaction as the way it connects me to my dad.
As I wrote this article, I reached out to the Midlife Tribe community and asked this simple question:
“What do you think makes a good dad?”
The responses reassured me I was right to hold my dad in such high esteem.
For example, the very first response was from Jarrod, who said simply, “A good listener.”
Likewise, Miakez said, “Just being there to listen without judgement, and always being good for a hug or a pat on the back. Cherish your dad.”
Mike, a regular commentator on MLT, offered this (shortened a little for brevity): “Kindness, patience, and show them what love is by being loving. Gently encourage your kids to follow their dreams and passions, as long as those dreams and passions are healthy. Instil in them imagination and creativity, teach them constructiveness, how to play fair; teach them honesty and integrity – without that, there is nothing but chaos and anarchy. Pass on knowledge, and listen to your kids – sometimes they can teach you a few things too.”
Rob said a few things that really hit the mark: “If your children are 100% sure they are loved, you are halfway there. Impart to them a healthy sense of humour, and advice that is as objective as you can manage. If your objective is to make them emotionally intelligent, confident, compassionate, and able to adapt, then you care about their future.”
And finally, longtime reader and all-around wonderful person, Rebecca said, “I do think a dad has a huge responsibility to show their children how to treat a woman with love; how to work on teamwork and the ups and downs that happen in all of life.”
As someone who's right in the middle of midlife, I see now that being a good dad is the highest calling there is.
I've experienced it from both sides of the transaction – as a child and as a parent. I understand now the impact my dad has had on me, and it manifests when I ‘get it right' with one of my own kids.
Raising kids who know they're loved, valued, and who have the support needed to build resilience, self-belief and emotional intelligence – is the mark of a good dad.
It's certainly more valuable (and enduring) than wealth, status or fame.
In my mind, it's my dad's greatest achievement.
I'm hoping it'll be mine, too.
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Also published on Medium.