Care and Feeding

I Just Want to Be Better

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. How do I learn to be a good father?

A man in a suit looking nervous.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AnikaSalsera/iStock/Getty Images.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a mid-20s guy about to finish law school, and about to celebrate a fifth anniversary with my girlfriend. We plan on getting married and having children, though that has not always been easy. We briefly separated a few months after I started law school, when we started living together for the first time. I had been avoiding the question of children, having been very against the idea. It’s a long story, and other factors surely led to issues in our relationship, so I will delicately skate past that mess. To be brief, I am now (of my own accord) looking forward to starting a family. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but we want to make sure we can give them the love and support they deserve.

I’ve started to look at blogs, books, and websites, and honestly I don’t know where to begin or who to trust. I come from a dysfunctional nuclear family, and I want to be the best husband and father I can be, knowing that I can’t be perfect and there is no one formula to the apex of paternal prowess. So my question is both pretty simple and (probably) really difficult to answer. What, where, or who should I look to as I prepare myself to be the most important person in someone’s life, either as a husband or father?

—Just Want to Be Better

Dear Just Want to Be Better,

I am thrilled that you want to think carefully and prepare for what will, almost certainly, be the most important work of your life. Generally speaking, anyone who a) worries about being a bad parent and b) wants to learn how to be a good parent is already getting good grades in my book.

I first suggest that you take a moment and realize that your current girlfriend may not be the woman you raise your children with. This is not meant to be any criticism of her, just an observation about how the person we are (and the person we want) in our mid-20s can look very, very different from that person just a few years later. I am not a relationship advice columnist, but let’s move forward thinking of the kind of father you wish to be, separate from the relationship these kids may eventually spring from.

As a point of reassurance, my own (superb) father asked himself these same questions before I was born. His mother was an active, nonfunctioning alcoholic who rarely remembered to feed or clothe her children (I’m talking disappearing for weeks on two kids under the age of 9); his father was the same, also violent, and skipped town early on. He had no idea what being a good father meant, but he knew from his own childhood what seemed most crucial. He and my mother decided that, together, they would never break their word to us, barring emergencies. If they said they would do something, they did it, whether that meant leaving the zoo because we were acting up and had been warned or making 100 paper airplanes with us, bored to tears, because he had said he would. Kids need predictability, they need to be unconditionally loved and provided with the necessities of life, and they need to be with you (until they’re older and would rather die).

My dad often tells us he was luckier as a parent than people who had had terrible dads who stuck around: He didn’t have anything to unlearn. He got to decide for himself what being a parent looked like, and for him, that meant trying to subtly watch other parents at the park and the library to see who was doing a good job, and also following his instincts. He’s one of the best fathers I’ve ever known.

Go find some parents to hang with! This will become easier in a few years; right now you’re in the “wedding every weekend this summer” phase of your life, not the “constant baby announcements” phase. Ask what they’ve learned, what they would fix if they had a do-over, etc. But also, just watch them work. And take things as they come. You have a long time to figure out how to raise teenagers. Once you’re looking at the positive pregnancy test, start here.

Oh, and one more thing: Go get some therapy. A shitty childhood you think you’ve gotten away from can pop back up when you have your own kids, so start the work now.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two girls, 15 and 12. I am a single parent who has not seen or heard from their dad in a number of years. My girls are amazing. They are responsible with their homework, pack their lunches, help around the house, it’s perfectly ideal. As a result, I have almost no need to discipline them. When one does overstep or get sassy, typically “the look” corrects it and we are back on track. Recently, I had a situation where we had to participate in a fundraiser (that frankly none of us wanted to do) and my oldest staged a sit-in. “I don’t want to go and you cannot force me to do it,” she said. I acknowledged that she was right, but, I said, we made a commitment and needed to go. I’d meet her in the car. After a few minutes, she appeared and the day was otherwise fine (she actually had a good time with her friends).

My question is: How do I handle inevitable future conflicts? What punishment is appropriate? The low-hanging fruit of taking away the phone is impractical because we no longer have a landline, so that becomes a matter of safety when they are home alone.

—Blessed and I Know It

Dear Blessed,

You are doing … incredibly well. So well. The way in which you handled your 15-year-old not wanting to attend that fundraiser was varsity-level parenting, and it paid off.

With kids at this age, especially your older daughter, discipline needs to start transforming into preparing them for adult autonomy, which is all about making choices, for good or ill. Natural consequences have probably served you well already (kid doesn’t want to wear a coat, kid gets cold, kid wears coat next time) but can also play a role in your teenager’s life.

Now is a time to really focus on values, which is why I loved your “We made a commitment” followed by waiting in the car. You have great kids, so keep your expectations for them high but also be willing to let some things slide. One of the greatest parental tools is to catch your kid dead-to-rights breaking a rule and tell them you’re going to let this one go, because they are usually a wonderfully behaved child, and they make you proud daily. Your child will remember those moments.

When punishment is necessary, changing the Wi-Fi password has become the gold standard. You can also refuse giving rides to places, which has always been very effective for 12- and 15-year-olds.

I am just so impressed by you, a single mom, and what you’ve accomplished with these lovely girls. Congratulations, truly.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 6 and mostly hangs out with girls. He has one boy friend with whom he gets on well, but mainly he just likes girls better.

He’s turning 7 soon and wants a party. He wants to invite, like, 10 girls plus this one boy. My husband isn’t super happy about that. He said he wonders what kind of message it will send; I think he’s worried our son will further isolate himself from the other boys, who he’s going to need to get on with at school for years to come. I said we wouldn’t be having this conversation if our son wanted to invite all boys and one girl, so I didn’t see a problem with it.

—Is This a Problem

Dear ITaP,

Your husband can deal with it. Not everything is better than it used to be (screens, college loan burdens, lack of affordable housing for families), but one massive improvement over days of yore is that people are chilling the eff out about kids playing with boys and girls and whomever they want to.

I bet your son is awesome!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old son has once again been invited to “Jane’s” birthday party, for the third year in a row. My son has gone to all her parties, but every year when he invites her to his birthday I don’t even get an RSVP from her parents; she simply doesn’t come. My kid loves Jane (his words); every year he insists that she is coming to his party, and every year he cries because she didn’t come.

I don’t want him to go to her party this weekend, mostly because I can’t stand Jane’s parents for making my kid cry on a yearly basis, but also because this year they are going to a trampoline park and I am uncomfortable with those for safety reasons.

How do I explain to my child that he isn’t going? And secondly, do I call and RSVP no, and if I do, how do I keep from telling them that they are jerks? They probably won’t notice if I don’t call; they invite dozens of kids to these things.

—Why Are They LIKE This??

Dear WATLT,

Call Jane’s parents right now.

Tell them that your son loves coming to Jane’s party every year and you’re wondering why Jane never comes to his party. They’re probably flakes, not ogres. If your son gets invites to Jane’s party, it’s unlikely Jane has any particular beef with him, and it sounds way more like Jane’s parents, like myself and my husband, are incapable of correctly RSVPing to things and hate children’s parties and are just terrible people who have no business having kids. Phew. Sorry.

Call them and invite them specifically to the next party. Say it would mean so much to your son if Jane can come, possibly lay the he-cries-when-she-doesn’t-come guilt trip, and ask if there’s anything you can do on your end (just as you hate trampoline parks, maybe you have an uncovered swimming pool and that’s a no-go for them).

It’s most likely they will get their act together and bring Jane to your next party. I also recommend letting your kid go to Jane’s party at the trampoline park; I really do. In my opinion, backyard trampolines are a death trap, but trampoline parks are different and if you go with them and make sure he stays in the netted ones, etc., he’ll be fine, and he’ll be so happy to be there.

Best of luck!

—Nicole

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