06/09/2014 04:42 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Admit It When You Don't Know... and Other Things I've Learned from My Dad About Parenting

Betsy Boyd

When I was born in 1973, my father was almost 40. An ad exec who'd already raised two children with my mom and hadn't planned to begin the process afresh (until a ski trip weekend rewrote history), he felt trapped at first. Perhaps I came at exactly the right time for him, though: He knew who he was by this point, and he liked himself OK. While legend has it Dad had been strict and frequently impatient with my older sister and brother, he proved relaxed and super-engaged with me. Each Saturday morning while Mom slept in, my hyper-creative father and I played our intricate invented game, "The Palace of Learning," for which I drew a class of paper doll students that Dad cut out with sharp scissors. My father was "Mr. Boyd," the principal, while I was "Giant Little Girl," the chief administrator and art instructor. Our students loved to draw and paint and make pop-up books that really worked and play outside, much like Dad and I did. Everything ran smoothly until the Tasmanian Devil action figure reared his moody, maniacal head ("All good narratives require serious conflict," Dad taught me at age 3). Ultimately, a couple of kind paper dolls usually gave the devil a chance to join their game, and he mostly abandoned his violent behavior...

As I prepare to deliver twin boys in two weeks -- I am 41 myself, and these are my first children -- I want to keep in mind the several sweet and profound ways in which my painter, poet, creative-director father enriched my world and my self-esteem through advice and direction. I'll strive to build a new sort of "Palace" with these tiny kiddos.

1. You'll have a better day if you make something.
Dad was fond of pointing out that he rarely felt bored. "There are too many wonderful things to do!" he announced. I'd probably complained that I wanted to have a friend come sleep over. A visiting friend could always quell my little-kid ennui. When no one was available, Dad would sit me down at his desk and encourage me to finish a drawing he'd begun just for me and left intentionally incomplete. As I watched him in his home office/studio painting surreal landscapes and circus scenes, I wanted to become absorbed in and transported by my own imagination, too, for hours on end. I'm not sure if he sensed this hunger in me -- or if he just wanted to stop my whining -- but my father soon spent patient time helping me learn to paint with his less expensive brushes, how to mix acrylic colors, how to use the time available to me to finish a modest project and how to clean my tools with pride. If I painted a brown horse and her red-headed female rider and wrote a short attached monologue, I felt joyful in a new way. It was better than any other experience I'd lived, even those shared with a friend. Little by little, I learned to pick up a brush, a pen or a book if a pal wasn't available to play. And I had many good days. I hope that my boys, though they'll have each other's company, learn also to love patient and deep solo endeavors.

2. A confident "you" line is a great line.
Never for an instant did Dad give me the impression that my artistic ability was lacking or insanely brilliant. Rather, he'd say generally, "That's a very nice line," when I drew a vase without looking at my paper, for example. "I like the slight exaggeration of the vase's neck," he might add. "Your instinct got playful with it." From Dad I learned that any brisk line I drew on a page -- or sentence I concocted in a composition -- would be authentic and "what it should be" if I trusted myself. If I tried to work like someone else, my line (or my words) would likely suffer. If I over-shaded my still-life subject matter or erased and started again and again, my line would no longer be under my own best control. A real "you" line begins with ease, with confidence, but also humility, and continues fluidly; with these traits in her toolkit, a creator can't go wrong. When my sons scribble outside the lines of their coloring books, I hope I'll remember to say, "Keep going!"

3. There is no 'they.'
Dad offered this highfalutin advice frequently, but it probably meant the most as I approached adolescence and sported the worst (extremely short) haircut of my life. "Everyone hates it!" I wailed.

Cribbed from Martin Heidegger, one of my father's favorite philosophers, the idea is that we humans put far too much thought into how we're being received -- or perceived -- by a collective of our peers (in my case, my entire eighth grade class) or any external pack. A group of people is only that: a group of people -- a gaggle. They do not share an identical, unified mind. Their they-ness, in effect, does not equal a personified reality... or a power center. When we imagine and assign such a power, we invent a fictional 'they.' The only people who matter (who "exist") are individuals with whom we share a bond or for whom we've cultivated affection and respect. Therefore, my impression that my whole enormous eighth grade class found my short, frizzy hair off-putting and laughable was irrational/improbable (even if Jenny Brenner no doubt did); when my drama teacher called the style sassy, I tried to hear her. Then I grew it long.

4. To hell with the a**holes.
I needed to learn that sometimes a hero -- or a person I'd idealized -- would let me down in such a significant way that the emotional pain would hurt worse than the worst of my chronic sore throats. Freshman year at a big public high school in Texas, my best friend made cheerleader; I did not. The next day, she stopped speaking to me cold turkey. The loss felt like a death, really. But Dad kept saying mantra-style, "She's a jerk; to hell with her," until finally I said the same, and still do about people who fail to be consistent in a colossal way. It's a lesson I'm always going to be learning: We want to believe that people are fundamentally good and kind -- and perhaps that's a healthy theory -- but when they shut the door on us, we also have to believe we'll find better friends elsewhere. We deserve to find them, boys.

5. Never be afraid to admit you don't know an answer.
As a college newspaper reporter and journalism student, I found it easy off the bat to call up my sources and ask a long list of personal questions, many of them impromptu. Quite naturally, I adopted a vocal tone at once respectful and authoritative. I enjoyed learning how a local preacher tailored his sermon for the mentally ill; with some patient needling, I discovered precisely how tattoo artists and acupuncturists do their complicated thing. It's still my great pleasure to interview people who are skilled at something specialized. And I believe it comes naturally because my father urged me as a kid to ask big questions at the dinner table -- and on our walks around the neighborhood. He beamed if I could stump him. "It's the people who pretend to know everything who aren't learning, and are therefore fools," Dad said. "The intelligent ask enthusiastically. They pay attention, then they ask away!"

6. Gargle with salt water at the first hint of a sore throat!
Before I was born, Dad wrote ad copy for a pharmaceutical firm. He offered a good deal of medical advice through the years. This tip's been the most helpful of them all. When my boys' throats tickle, we'll gargle with glorious nonsense notes.

I'm still not sure about Dad's recommendation for the steaming of sebaceous glands -- or what they are, exactly. While I think of it, I'll dial his house and ask him.