At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a great quote, but it’s not true. Happy families are a bunch of weirdos.
I know because we’re one of them. My wife and I got divorced when our daughter was three. It completely shook up my world, but I loved my little girl and the three of us quickly fell into a routine where she spent half the week with mom and half with me. Five years later we’re a loving and happy divorced family. In other words? Weirdos.
Raising a child as a single dad transformed me for the better. It was easy to bicker with my then-wife about childcare, bills, and work. Doing it solo forced me to figure out how to manage my life without being a jerk. I learned to be tender and attentive, yet with clear boundaries. This remains one of the most valuable lessons of my life.
At the time I worked from home, so I solved the single child syndrome by inviting friends to drop their kids off with me. Honestly I was intimidated at first, but I gave myself the challenge of figuring out how to play with two to four kids. It was like setting a goal at the gym, or a budget at home. But my goal was particularly high: not only did I have to do it, and do it well – I had to enjoy it.
Five years later, my daughter and I are like peas in a pod. I have awesome relationships with about ten other kids. I even changed professions. I now teach a class of first, second, and third graders, write successfully about parenting topics, and am widely considered a fun and responsible father and teacher. Last winter, as Christmas rolled around, my students complained about the length of the winter break: it was too long. They wanted to come back to school.
Here’s my big secret — a hack if you will— for being a fun and engaged father: I refuse to play games that I don’t like. I know that sounds odd at first, so give me a second to explain. You won’t regret it.
Another way of saying this is only do things you want to do. Once I stumbled on this straightforward rule, my time with my daughter quickly became more engaging and fun. She now had a dad who was happy, not just one that was working to make her happy. See the difference?
This rule turns the typical logic of parenthood on its head – sacrifice yourself for the good of your kids. Parents who sacrifice themselves might appear to be doing something beneficial. There’s no question that it comes from a place of love, but it’s not easy to have fun when you’re sacrificing yourself. It’s much easier when you start placing value on your feelings in the moment. I know, I said it. Feelings. But eff it. That shit matters.
It helps to hear the rule in reverse: don’t do anything you don’t want to. It sounds crazy and selfish, but if you take it for granted that you want good things for your child — because, duh, you do — then this rule opens up the freedom to say no to My Little Pony pamper sessions.
When you say no to an activity that you don’t enjoy, but yes to your time together, you will slowly discover ways to play with your child that light you both up. And you’ll know when you get there, because it will feel good. For everyone. You won’t just be playing to satisfy their whim. You’ll be engaged.
If I don’t like a game or activity, I don’t do it. The kids always have the freedom to do it on their own. But if they want me to be a part of a game then I have to enjoy it. The authenticity that comes from this far outweighs the occasions when we disagree. It may take time to find the activity that suits the two (or more) of us, but it’s worth every effort. Even a two-year-old knows when I’m lying.
So, I make it a rule. I give them the real thing. Me.
This is exactly what kids do. If you watch them play a game, they will toggle back and forth almost constantly between playing a game and deciding how the game is played. To an outside observer this can be very amusing. There is a constant threat of one or more children quitting the game, and the others have to compromise to retain their interest.
On the other hand, have you ever seen three to five kids who have settled into a game where everyone feels the power and integrity of their role? Moments like that are precious. They can go on for hours. So can you if you’re honest.
What’s more compelling is what will happen to your child. Kids are smart. No matter what you do, he will notice exactly what you’re doing. And guess what? He’ll love you for it! He’ll grow up and learn to follow your example, sacrificing his happiness first for school, then his job, and later his partner, and his child.
I see a lot of fathers fall prey to this ethic. They love the hell out of their kids. They’re sacrificing and trying, showing up for their kids in every way they can, and just outstandingly unhappy. What they’re missing is themselves. That’s not something to be missed.
By adhering to this rule, we’re not saying screw off and do whatever you like, we’re saying I am a vital part of our time together. You transition from doing it for your child to doing it with your child. You no longer count yourself out. I promise you this will make a huge difference. Slowly, the two of you will create a way of playing so that everyone is happy, not just the child. And if you’ve never done this before, give it time. You’re growing. They’re learning. There’s no rush.
Still, it’s easier than you think. Kids are flexible. They’re interested in adults who are excited about what they’re doing. So share your joys with them. Excitement is infectious. It wakes up their brains to new things, and they quickly figure out how to get involved. On the other hand, kids tire almost instantly of worn-out fakers. Don’t you?
This simple rule has made raising children a blast for me, and it continues unimpeded. People think I have a way with kids, but counter to almost everyone’s expectations I’m doing it all for me. I’m selfish all the way. I’m just also loving and sympathetic, because – duh – being loving and sympathetic makes me happy.
Some parents react as if this rule borders on hedonism, as if our desires would lead us to disastrously neglectful lives, drugged out on the coach with whores and cheese puffs. But here’s the wonderful news – you don’t want that. You don’t want a slimy, poopy suffering baby. And you don’t want a ten-year-old that stares longingly for the father he never had. You want a real, healthy kid. You want a real, healthy you.
But don’t take it from me. I invite you to destroy this rule with all the logic and rigor of your own experience. Put your blasters on full power. Find every mistake. That’s kind of the point. Listen to yourself. Value the shit out of your inner gut feeling. I’ve probably misstated something. Maybe I’m just tricking you and inflating my ego by publishing more parenting nonsense.
But I’ll tell you this – the kids in my life don’t give a damn. They have tons of room for me to be an idiot, or checked out for a few hours. They love hanging out with me, so it’s not hard for them to give me space when I’m a little moody, spaced-out, or preoccupied. And I love hanging out with them. Because I make it a point to enjoy myself in their presence.