03/07/2014 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How One Bad Day Became a Profound Lesson in Parenting

The night before was daddy-kid movie night. Together, my kids and I gathered up nearly every pillow and stuffed animal in the house (which is a lot!), and carefully transformed the basement playroom floor into one giant and colorful cushion. This is a family tradition that we try to reenact at least once a week, but usually on Fridays, since it provides both a great cap on the end of the regular week and a great intro to a weekend filled with adventures.


The movie of the night was slated to be The Prisoner of Azkaban, and my original plans included watching it with copious amount of coconut oil popped popcorn (one of my wife's amazing concoctions), sugary snacks and great company.

As often happens with the best laid plans, they changed. By the end of the movie, my kids were still awake and ready for more. Serves me right for loading them up with sugar, right? Against my better judgment, I popped in The Goblet of Fire, thinking to myself, there's no way they will stay up any later than about 10:00, which will still give them enough sleep.

Boy, was I wrong.

While my little girl passed out about ten minutes into the film, snuggled up beside me, I lasted about an hour before I conked out. Problem was, my little boy stayed awake for nearly the whole thing. I woke up to see the title menu of the DVD on repeat, turned off the TV, and fell back to sleep, wondering just how late he was up when all was said and done.

The next morning, my daughter awoke first, which woke me, but my little guy was not far behind. While she went upstairs to scavenge cereal, waffles or whatever else was on her mind, he snuggled in closer, stealing his sister's spot. With sleep still weighing down his half-closed eyelids, he looked up as he tugged me in close, and whispered, "I love you, Daddy!"

I could tell it was going to be an awesome day -- or was it?

Thirty minutes later, I was wondering where the loving little cuddle buddy had gone and why he had been replaced with the demon spawn of St. Anger! Every move or comment made by his sister set him off on a tirade of frustration. If I stepped in to play peacemaker, I was chided for playing favorites. Even the dog made him angry, and the dog is one of his very best friends.

In a moment of sheer frustration, both my wife and I pondered aloud where our happy boy had gone, and why our son had become so angry. After his last tantrum, we scolded him by telling him that there would be no more staying up late for daddy-kid movie nights if this was going to be how he acted the next morning.

That's when he lost it. My son took his anger to a dark, scary place, punctuated by muttering, "Nobody loves me. I wish I'd never been born."

I wanted to drop to my knees and flood the room with tears of pain and angst upon hearing those words come from my 6-year-old son. Though I can recall saying the same words as a child, even well into my teenage years, it feels different when one is on the receiving end of such hurt. I immediately hugged him, as did my wife, while we pledged our undying love for him, but at the same time, we reminded him that saying these things was not OK. Simply put, they are not true, and we needed to figure out where these words came from.

That's when my wife recognized the familiarity in both tone and content. She pulled me aside and gently reminded me that, during a pretty heated argument the two of us had only five days prior, I had accused her of not showing enough love, of not wanting me around anymore and of seeming to wish I was gone. Yes, I took an argument to a surprisingly childish level for a guy with a PhD in communication and leadership studies. It would seem that a doctorate does not make one immune to the darker side of human nature. While her pointed assessment reopened wounds I thought had been closed at the conclusion of our fight, they bled anew for a completely different reason.

My son's words were my own. His feelings were a manifestation of what he had silently observed and internalized his father doing only five days earlier. I hadn't realized that he soaked in that much of the fight, but here were my words, returned to haunt me.

My pain was twofold: one, I felt amazingly immature for having uttered such ridiculously hurtful words to the woman I love, but two, I felt increasingly hypocritical for having passed this off to my child. To confirm my wife's theory, I pulled my son aside and asked him, "Did you say what you said because you heard Daddy say it last week?"

"Y-y-yes," he stuttered through brimming tears and nervous anticipation. Without another word, I picked him up and held him close, probably tighter than I can ever recall holding my son.

Only two weeks prior to all of this, a reader introduced me to a quote by Peggy O'Mara: "Be careful how you speak to your children. One day, it will become their inner voice." I'm now thinking of having a slightly shorter version of it tattooed on my forearm as a reminder.

Our children are our continuation. Whatever seeds we sow in them, we will reap later on. We may not recognize it right away, because it may look slightly different, but we absolutely must lead them by example, both in deed and words.

I now ask myself, what example am I setting? While I conduct research on father presence and how other dads can reconnect with their children, am I neglecting my own? While I write stories of how I've learned to be a better father, am I letting these lessons slip away? While I'm off trying to make a better living to provide for my family, am I missing out on the most important moments, the ones where they need a father significantly more than a paycheck?

What started out as a bad day for my little boy turned into a profound lesson in what it means to be a better husband, father, and ultimately, person.

Now, excuse me while I put this article away in favor of time spent with the people who truly matter most.

If possible, I suggest you do the same.

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