I’m a Dad.
I’m also a lot of other things, but my most important title is Dad. It will determine more than anything else my final self-evaluation in life. How my sons turn out will be my most impactful measure of success.
There are a multitude of books out there about what fathers should teach their sons. I’ve read some of them and tried as a dad to follow their advice. I’m not sure I was great at it, but I did my best. Hopefully my boys learned a lot from me—I know I learned a lot from them.
It’s not that my sons have imparted a great deal of wisdom from their brains to mine, but raising kids teaches a parent a lot. And raising my sons has made me a better man.
I need to be up front right off the bat. I think I’ve been a pretty good dad, but far from great. In fact, many of the lessons I list in this book I learned because I failed as a dad. Some of the lessons I learned too late to benefit my sons.
For example, I have a very long anger fuse. It takes quite a bit to get me to lose my temper or yell at someone, but one of my sons had an impressive ability to trip that fuse. And every time I yelled at him, I walked away after and resolved not to do that again—and then I did.
In The Second Mountain, David Brooks makes a great point about authors: “Those of us who are writers, work out our stuff in public, even under the guise of pretending to write about someone else. In other words, we try to teach what it is that we really need to learn . . . I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.”
I can relate.
I’ve written this book to share stories, honor my wonderful family, and remind myself of the kind of dad I still want to be—because even though my boys are now young men, a dad can still teach and learn.
Let me tell you a little about my sons.
At the time I write this, Thor is twenty-two and about to graduate from college with a degree in supply chain management. Rolf is nineteen and a sophomore in college with a plan to teach elementary school. As is often the case with siblings, we question how the same parents and genes could have created such different young men.
As a toddler, Thor fit his name (and his red hair) well—fiery, emotional, demanding. His daycare teachers called him General One Shoe (based on his habit of taking off one shoe and shaking it at other kids while he bossed them around). By contrast, Rolf in his earliest years was always cheerful, quiet, and very easy-going. Save for the breakdown-inducing colic he had as a baby, he was a picture-perfect little guy.
Somewhere in their late elementary years however, things changed for our boys. Thor started to become more reserved, calm, and introspective. To this day he prefers a close group of friends to being the life of the party. He remains even keel, very kind, and fiercely loyal; and he’s certainly the healthiest and most physically active member of the Johnson family.
Rolf ’s personality developed as well. Still he always has a laugh to share, but he lost the title of our calm and quiet kid many years ago. He’s outgoing, has a huge heart for people, and is much more emotional and sensitive than Thor. He’s a big boy, about six- foot-four and 240; but he isn’t an intimidator, more a big, goofy, fun-loving teddy bear. And he’s as stubborn as a mule. On a really bad day. With a migraine.
Thor and Rolf grew up as typical boys, loving sports, friends, and the social aspects of school. Their grades were fine (mostly) but they could have been better with more effort. Like father, like son, I guess.
And they were definitely both “all boy,” sometimes shocking their mother with their crass or vulgar behavior. My wife, Sondi, at times threatened them with something called “Cotillion” — a mixed-gender Miss Manners type of class for kids intended to teach them proper behavior. She told them if they didn’t clean up their act, she’d send them there to learn fancy things like dancing and social etiquette. I always thought they could use help in more fundamental ways, like using utensils or farting more quietly. But they were always just smart enough to avoid that threatened nightmare.
Every boy has his moments (or days or years) when they are irritating, disappointing, and at times truly maddening. And any parent who suggests otherwise is lying. I questioned more than once how bad a dad I was because of something one of my boys said or did. And it’s amazing over twenty years how many times in a single day you can go from unconditional and unchallenged feelings of pride and love to absolute exasperation.
Raising boys is exhausting, confusing, sometimes even infuriating . . . and absolutely awesome.
The most impactful lesson I learned from my sons is the last one I discuss in this book, but I’ll preface it here: A son is the greatest earthly gift God gives. Even on the really bad days.
Trying to remember that and act accordingly is the greatest challenge of fatherhood.
LESSON ONE: Take Conversations When They Come.
Some boys are more talkative with their parents than others, but I gather most of them go through a period in their teens when parental communication is pretty sparse.
That always bothered Sondi more than me— probably because I’m a guy. I don’t generally choose to talk about all the aspects of my day or share my feelings as easily as she does.
Both of our boys were chatterboxes until sixth or seventh grade. I recall in elementary school getting a report from Rolf’s teacher calling him “charismatic” in the classroom. We were pretty excited to have a charismatic son until our teacher conference when we realized she was just telling us (in a kind way) that Rolf was disruptive in class because he wouldn’t stop talking to his friends.
Rolf has always been more expressive than Thor, but he definitely became more guarded in middle school. Thor clammed up with us completely.
Their reliance on texting doesn’t help. They lose the practice of conversation and, even worse, things like “K” and “Ya” are considered complete sentences.
So I learned, once the “quiet” years hit, you have to take the conversations when they come— on their timeline.
Unfortunately for us, our boys most liked to talk late at night. Once they started driving, they were required to get their homework done after school. Then they usually ended up at activities or with friends most evenings. They came home for bed when we told them to come home, seldom before.
I once read about parents with little kids: It seems unfair that the people who want to go to bed have to put the people to bed who don’t want to go to bed.
Well the more things change, the more they stay the same. Most teens who drive (or at least our two boys) struggle to get up in the morning and then stay up as late as you let them (and sometimes later). Our boys were always most interested in chatting after they got home at night—usually when I was quite ready to call it a day.
Honestly, a long conversation was often the last thing on my mind. It’s one of the many examples where Sondi was a better parent than me. But I did try, and it often yielded information and a small connection that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
Take the conversations when they come—even if you’re really tired.