My dad has always been a renaissance man. An LA-based history professor with sparkly blue eyes and a movie-star smile, my dad was also an athlete, who played soccer for UCLA and, later, a semi-pro team and a violinist with an impressive chamber group and the occasional professional gig. Being the happiest man on earth, as we called him, required rigor and dedication.
It's not surprising, then, that he rarely became emotionally entangled in our lives (that was our mom's job) and he jumped into the messy business of parenting mainly when something grabbed his attention. When I took piano and my sister violin lessons, he accompanied us on his fiddle. He was the only dad to accompany my girl scout troop on a camping trip. He made up elaborate stories when he tucked us into bed. But when I think back to my childhood, my dad is buried in a book. He smiles when he notices me. My heart leaps. His slight inaccessibility was probably a big part of what made my sister and me adore him as he did. He was good-looking, smart, talented and hard-to-get -- what more could a young girl want? Thanks to his passions, his self-discipline, his sweetness and the attention he chose to give, my dad taught me a few things about what children need from their parents.
Cultivate a life of your own.
My dad has been playing soccer compulsively since he first kicked a ball around the streets of the German village where he spent much of his childhood. At 74, he still plays three times a week, in rain or shine, in sickness and in health, despite being by far the oldest guy on his team. While we have occasionally accompanied him to the field, soccer has traditionally been something he does by himself, for himself. His devotion to fussball (and his willingness to blow off other events for it) drives my mom batty, but his ardor for the game might be precisely what made my dad such a calm, measured parent. It was his exercise, his escape, his channel for anger, his religion. And it was all his. Since my son's first breath six years ago, I have struggled to carve out a piece of my life for myself, but I know that I must. For me, this means letting my husband take my son to his swimming lesson so I can do yoga or read the paper. It also means chaining myself to a desk from 9-3:00--so at least during school hours I can keep being a writer.
Play with your kids.
Some parenting lessons are learned by watching what our parents didn't do. Soccer was not something my dad shared with us. Family lore has it that he took me out to the field when I was very young. He kicked the ball around, I showed little interest in kicking it back and he never tried again. I was not sporty as a kid. I wasn't good at kickball, softball, handball or the other games we played at school. My sister was athletic; I was artsy, literary, a bookworm. Now that I have a child of my own, I play soccer all the time. And you know what? I'm not bad. Maybe I'm better when there's no pressure to excel -- expectations are low on the kindergarten circuit -- or maybe I simply grew more athletic with age. In any case, I wish my dad had taught me to play as a kid. It might have grown into a talent or at least provided quality dad and daughter time.
Follow your kid's bliss.
As a high school student, I was a bit lazy. I preferred drinking beer, getting giddy with my girlfriends, dancing to Madonna songs and kissing boys (the cuter the better) to homework. I proudly proclaimed myself an "anti-intellectual," but my learned father was having none of it. For my 15th birthday, he gave me a dictionary. It was a distinctly unglamorous present for a girl obsessed with Guess jeans, Valley Girl and Duran Duran, but I was touched. My mom generally chose gifts and I loved that my dad had gone to a bookstore and selected this dictionary for me, probably because he'd seen a hint of a love of words in me. Another time, the two of us sat on my bedroom floor talking about Plato for hours. My dad was so excited that I had grasped some of the more complex aspects of his philosophy, maybe because it confirmed his suspicion that I wasn't as anti-intellectual as I professed. These days we sign up our kids for zillions of activities. I pay attention to which ones make my son's heart sing -- science, tee ball, piano -- and wonder if one might bloom into the kind of lifelong passion my dad feels for soccer, the violin -- and Plato.
Lose your sh*t only when you mean it.
In our family, my mom got mad all the time. She screamed and swore and sometimes threw things. My mom lost her temper so often and so flamboyantly that her anger became ineffectual. It was diluted by its frequency. My dad, on the other hand, rarely got angry (maybe because he worked out his issues on the soccer field). When he did, though, watch out. I can still see his face puffing up (we said he looked like Beethoven), his eyes darkening, his outstretched hand threatening to strike. The transformation from our sweet, usually placid father was terrifying. In an instant, we shut up or stuttered apologies and stopped whatever behavior had provoked him. This is a lesson I often forget when it comes to my own kid. I inherited my mom's tendency toward easy irritation and anger. My son's new thing is covering his ears when I raise my voice and it's a good reminder. My dad taught me that to be an effective parent, it's better to hold my tongue.
Take a walk.
Probably once a week, my dad -- alone or with another parent -- would gather a posse of neighborhood kids after dinner to walk down the hill from our house to get ice cream. The sweets were the big draw, but the 15-20 minute walk itself remains a standout memory for me. We would sing, play tag and hide and seek, run ahead to jump out and scare the grownups. My dad still likes to take a walk after dinner. He says it helps with digestion, but there's a lot more to getting outside and moving one's limbs, no matter what time of day. When my son and a friend get unruly, I like to send them outside -- to literally cool down. And when I have an opportunity to pick him up from school on foot, I take it, and we usually have an adventure. My dad has changed since the birth of my son. Where he was once remote, now he is warm, fuzzy, effusive and sentimental. He even calls just to say he loves and misses me, something he'd never done before. Something shifted when he became a grandfather. Maybe it's that he's retired and has more free time. Maybe he's inspired by the amount of time he sees me playing with my son. Maybe he's just softened with age. In any case, it seems my dad has been given a second chance at sharing his life with a beloved little person, and this time it's colored by a compulsive, all-consuming rush of love. He never stops gushing about my son -- to us, to friends, to strangers. When we are home in Boston, my dad pines for him, gets blue, wonders when we can Skype. When we visit, the two of them spend hours together, walking the dog, running along a dirt path, stopping to admire the view of the ocean, building sandcastles, kicking a soccer ball.