August 7, 2019
A few weeks ago, my 6 year old son and I were at the community pool for swimming lessons (for him, not me). It was the last session of the week, and they typically just play in the pool for the hour. I asked my son to go down the big slide, which has been a requirement in our family as a prerequisite to going to water parks during the summer. He looked at the slides and told me that he would do the little one, but not the big one because he was too scared to do the big one. Reaching into my parental toolbox, I went for the big hammer: bribery. “If you go down the big slide, we can go for milkshakes after we’re done.” My son reacted predictably: he jumped into action heading right for the slide. However, once he was at the top of the ladder and on the platform my offered bribe wasn’t sufficient to overcome his fear of the slide. He came back down the ladder and proclaimed that it was “too scary.” I called him over and explained a simple idea to him: “It’s ok to be scared. Lots of things scare me, too. Part of being a man is doing things even though you are scared.” He looked at me for a second, turned, climbed the ladder, and went down the big slide without saying another word. I could have burst with pride for my boy. As soon as he got out of the water, he asked me if I was proud of him. Was I ever! This wasn’t the first time I have had a “part of being a man” talk with my son. We routinely talk about doing things we don’t want to or treating ladies with respect. All boys have a natural inclination to see their fathers as superheroes of sorts. They want to be like them and know their fathers are proud of them. I think one of the most important lessons a father can learn is to take this responsibility seriously. How we carry ourselves and the lessons we impart will shape the rest of their lives. It starts with the little moments, when they are still small themselves. My son going down the slide is not a major life accomplishment. However, learning to face down his fears is a monumental undertaking. In a few years, it might be a bigger kid who is bullying him or asking a girl out on a date or acknowledging a mistake or trying out for the football team or some other life challenge. The tiny lesson about facing fear without backing down isn’t the last one, but it has set a precedent for the next time. I would argue that a basic responsibility of fathers is explaining to their sons what it means to be a man, helping them grow into that role, and cheering them on as they do it. We sometimes want to make this about fighting or hunting or one of the other tasks that is typically perceived as masculine. I’d instead argue that it has more to do with the big ideas: integrity, courage, respect, hard work, etc. These are the building blocks of character and mean more than being an outdoorsman or tough guy. It’s our job to teach them this truth.