The 5 Commandments of Fatherhood

Being a dad has become complicated. Here’s how to do it right.

I live in the most confusing time in human history to be a dad. For the last 10 million years, dads have had pretty much some variation of these two jobs: 1. Provide bacon. 2. Protect family from dinosaurs.

But the landscape of fathering has shifted in the last 10 years. Our country’s most recent recession created lots of new duel-income families and a record number of stay-at-home dads. We live in a time where parents’ roles and expectations are shifting. Breastfeeding is still a mother’s job, but just about everything else is fair game. Dads can braid hair and shop for groceries. Not too long ago, a dad going to a PTA meeting was a hilarious plot for an episode of your favorite sitcom. Now, it’s just called being a parent.

I love this new world of dads. But I think we’re all a little lost, because our dads didn’t parent like this. We can look to our friends, but most of what we see are perfectly lit Instagrams or hyper-stylized Christmas cards. So how do fathers forge their way in this new world of parenting?

I don’t know, exactly. I feel like I’m shipwrecked on an island without rules, trying to stay alive until I’m rescued. That rescue isn’t coming for at least another 18 years, when my last kid is in college. In the meantime, to make sure my family isn’t adrift in a hopeless anarchy, I’ve created some rules.

Rules are great for lost people trying to define themselves. The 10 Commandments defined the Israelites when they were lost in the desert, and 10 amendments to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights defined my country when it was young and trying to create an identity and philosophy of its own.

Like Moses and the forefathers, I’ve set out in search of governing rules for my job as a father. Ten seemed like too many to remember, so I cut that number in half. Here are my Five Commandments of Fatherhood:

1. There is no “woman’s” work.

I will never understand why changing a diaper was once considered a woman’s job. Most guys I know are much more comfortable around flatulence and feces jokes than women.

More than anything, if a helpless human being has urine and poop trapped against its skin, you should do whatever you can to help that person. It’s not a woman’s job; it’s the job of whomever is closest and can possibly solve the problem in the moment of crisis.

In our family, any parenting job can be a man’s or a woman’s. I mentioned breastfeeding, but even that’s a classic dad excuse. I can’t lactate, but I can grab a bottle and feed a baby in the middle of the night.

2. Treat parenting like it’s a career.

We understand what it means to work hard to succeed at our careers. We have to be good at our jobs and treat our clients and bosses with respect. We must focus and evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. If we don’t do these things, eventually our careers will collapse.

I don’t know what exactly my career will look like in the next 20 years, but I know I will still be a parent. So I will work to get better at it, evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and treat everyone in my organization with respect. I will treat my job as a father like it’s the most important job I’ll ever have.

3. Find mentors.

One stereotype of a dad is the guy lost in a jungle of bicycle parts on Christmas morning. He refuses to read the directions to put the new toy together even though the instructions are sitting right next to him. I don’t want to be that dad. Before things ever unravel, I want to find mentors to help me do this better.

I shouldn’t be expected to know everything. If time travel were possible, 20 years from now I would travel back to tell myself all the things I could do differently. It’s not possible. But there are people 20 years ahead of me who have a lot of wisdom. I will talk to and learn from them. I will get the advice from others that I will never be able to give to myself.

4. Be present whenever possible.

When all else fails, I will be present. This doesn’t just mean occupying the same space while I’m playing on my phone or wishing I was golfing. When I’m around my kids, I am available and engaged.

I cheer at soccer games and listen when my kids have problems. We laugh and play frequently. I will do everything I can to make sure my kids won’t look back at their childhood and think of an absent father.

5. Do some things different from your parents.

“My parents did that and I turned out okay.” I’ve heard other parents say this, but it’s just not a good litmus test for making decisions. I’m thankful I didn’t end up as a drug mule, but that doesn’t mean I cut and paste every decision my parents made into our family.

I live in a completely different time than the one I was raised in. And my entire human history of genetics has intersected with my wife’s family history. We won’t do something just because that’s the way we were raised. We make parenting decisions based on the best ideas and what’s best for our family.

My parents did a lot of things right. But they lived in an era where shoulder pads were considered fashionable by adults, so it’s hard to completely trust their judgment.

I hope my kids glean knowledge from our parenting. I know I’ve learned a lot from how my mom and dad raised me. But I won’t expect them to blindly apply everything my wife, Sarah, and I have done as gospel truth. They will make their own rules and they should. In 2014, we have decided handlebar mustaches are back in style and All About That Bass is our most popular song. Our judgment is questionable as well.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Rob Stennett
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