My father was a warm and generous man. His passing 20 years ago at age 85 remains a profound loss.
As a boy, I looked up to him with admiration, even awe. When I was a teenager, we often argued. (It was the sixties. I believed that he was too cautious in his support for civil rights and in his opposition to the Vietnam War.) As an adult and especially after I became a father, we were good friends. What a joyful and loving grandfather he was! His just reward for a lifetime of love and hard work. When he died, I felt deep regret for the brief period in my life when I had let him down; when, in my youthful rebellion, I had been unable to understand what was important to him and to appreciate how much he sacrificed for me. And I wished that I had known him even better.
I doubt my father would have understood the word "parenting." He lived in a time when the word parent was still just a noun. In an important sense, I learned only one great lesson from him. I learned that being a parent is about so much more than discipline and setting limits, that patience, encouragement and forgiveness matter more and that our children's respect for us is not given, but earned. When I became a father, he was my role model. I wanted to become the kind of father who would earn my children's love and respect, as he had earned mine. The rest, as it is said, is commentary.
1. I learned, from his example, the values that my wife and I would try to instill in our children. He lived the importance of character. Yes, he wanted us to achieve -- to work hard and do well -- but we were taught that success is best measured by the respect a person earns in their family and community.
2. I remember his lessons about initiative and responsibility. He owned a small business, a retail stationery store. As teenagers, my brothers and I would help out after school. He told us, "Let's say I send two employees to the stock room for a box of file folders. One comes back and tells me, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Barish, we don't have any.' The other says, 'Mr. Barish, we don't have that item, but here is a similar one, maybe the customer will want this?' Which one is going to keep the job?" A simple lesson, to be sure, but one that has remained with me.
3. He taught us (again, by example) about compassion and generosity. I saw how he sacrificed and cared for his family. My grandmother lived with us in her final years (my brothers and I gave up a bedroom for her) and he provided for his sister, bed-ridden most of her adult life with multiple sclerosis. He reserved his contempt for people he regarded as bigoted, stingy and self-centered.
4. As an adult, I knew that he was proud of me. I also know how deeply important this feeling was in my emotional life -- a guiding influence and a source of emotional support. I resolved to let my children know that I was proud of them, not only for their accomplishments, but for the good things they do for others.
Today, so much advice to parents (including my own) focuses on strategies for solving problems and helping children learn to cooperate and behave well. If my father had been alive when I wrote my parenting book, he might have been puzzled. I imagine him telling me, "It's a good book, Kenny, and I know that you are very good at what you do. But why do parents need all this advice? Just give kids love and support. They will sometimes give you 'agita,' like you guys gave me, but in the end, they will be fine."
And, perhaps, he would have been right.