THE BLOG

Portrait of a Father

06/18/2015 06:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

On Father's Day last year, my husband sat on the living room couch with the family gathered around him. My teenage son -- typically stymied by gift giving -- asked to go last, and since I no longer micromanage gift giving for him I had no idea what was coming. When it was his turn, he cued up Harry Chapin's song "Cats in the Cradle" on his laptop. Then in a low, shaky voice he began singing his own, original, lyrics while his sister, grandma, dad and I sat there listening, shifting our wide eyes first around at each other and then out into the space of the living room, as my son's words flowed through the air around us. My son pressed on.

Soon, we were all bawling. My son had taken a song my husband and I could hardly bear to listen to -- for its devastating account of a father who couldn't make time for his son and the son who grew up to do the same -- and transformed it into a tale of mutual caring with personal details of our family life thrown in. When the song was over we collapsed into a five-way hug and then surfaced to wipe our smeared faces on our sleeves. The rest of us were glad we'd given our gifts first. No gift could follow my son's that year. Or perhaps ever.

As the author of a parenting book I'm often asked how I define success when it comes to my own two teenagers, and fathers come to mind as I formulate my response. I live in Palo Alto, California, a place of extremely high achievement, where many fathers think they best know what leads to success in life, and try to manoeuver their kid in those specific directions by shouting -- literally -- from the sidelines, and by expecting their spouse to run interference. In turn, kids -- hard wired to seek a father's approval -- pursue the academics and extracurriculars their dad values rather than risk his harsh criticism, cold disapproval or outright disinterest. With this as backdrop, to me success comes when a father tells his kids he loves them for who they are, not because of the sports and activities they pursue, what they study, their GPA, their standardized test scores or the schools they attend, and when that father -- and this is key -- actually believes it.

As the freshman dean at Stanford for a decade, I had countless conversations with other people's grown sons and daughters, where, again, I was asked for my definition of success, and, again, fathers would factor into the conversation. Many of my students were raised to believe that success -- and a father's approval -- meant a career in engineering, finance, consulting, med school, business school, law school or a tech startup. Don't get me wrong: those paths can be meaningful and rewarding for the people who truly want to pursue them, but of course -- and this is also key -- many, I'd wager even most, young people have interests, skills and passions that lay in the vast landscape of elsewhere. Over the years I honed hour after hour of office hours advice to such students into a mantra: Figure out what you're good at and what you love, and do that; yes, regardless of what anyone else thinks, do that. Years later I still get emails, calls and Facebook messages from former students now in their mid-to-late twenties and even early thirties telling me they finally managed to heed that advice which often included summoning the guts to stand up to their father. One student took seven years to finish Stanford, having been forced by her father to study economics under threat that he would divorce her mother if she did not. The student studied economics but the father divorced the mother anyway. The student, now close to thirty, still feels the rub of those shackles her father placed on her even though they've finally been removed.

This all makes me wonder whether the tension between a father's expectations and a son's or daughter's choices and outcomes is a dissonant chord inherent in our human experience or whether a father can adjust his way of being with his children so as to create more harmony? I believe it's the latter. I believe in fathers who love their children simply because they exist, not because they've got an accomplishment, a course of study or a profession the father feels he can brag about. I believe in fathers who make the time to be with their kids, who really see their kids for who they actually are and embrace the kid they've got. Those men exist. I go to bed with one every night, and I chose that man to be the father of my two children. On this Father's Day, I honor him, my magnificent husband: the man whose high expectations for his children are simply that they will be good and kind people, regardless of the academic or career path they choose. A kid with unconditional fatherly love will be a success. It's the very best thing a father is good for.