My friend and bartender Chris just became a first-time dad, and it suits him. He’s got himself a little knucklehead all his own, his normal life has blown apart and gained focus all at once, and he’s full of love for all he’s got. He’s tending to mother and son, the way a man should be, and he gives the appearance of having his wits about him, even though that can’t possibly be the case. He’s started his life as a dad on the right foot, and in the right direction. I’m proud of him.
It’s a temptation for every parent to shovel advice on a new mom or dad, and I’m resisting that pull myself. There’s a time and place for that, but when we meet someone who’s just begun that role in life, we’re just itching to play expert, and I’m no exception. But it’s useless to try to pull a young dad’s attention away from his kid, doubly so when half the reason we want to be heard is to feed our own vanity.
So I’ll write it down, instead. That way you have the freedom to take it as you need it, and to argue and roll your eyes without feeling ungracious (precisely the reason I write weekly letters to my own grown boy). My advice to my friend, and new parents everywhere:
1. Read to your boy. Read to him early and often. Read to him before it makes any sense to do so. Read to him right now.
It isn’t about learning stories, or getting a jump on vocabulary or anything else. A baby is clueless, so it’s not about any of those things. It’s about cuddle time, and your child associating books with Daddy holding him close and spending some one-on-one time father to son.
2. Love him up. He doesn’t need toughening from you, not now. Life will do that for you. What he needs from you is the safe and sure knowledge that he is loved. Men and women grow strong from strong foundations, by having a place they know they’re emotionally safe and protected. Hug him up, kiss him, tell him you love him. Give him the base he needs.
And don’t worry about spoiling him. Love doesn’t spoil a child, not when it’s freely given. Things can spoil a child. A sense of entitlement can spoil a child. But not security. Let your kid know you love him so he never has to worry about it.
3. Fill your home with music. All kinds, all the time. Let your boy see you dance, hear you sing out loud to the radio in the car. Let him hear hip-hop, classic rock, country, metal, anything that moves your bones. Let him hear Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, like you introduced me to a few months ago. Show him a world of music. Remember “Mozart Makes You Smarter”? Well, it turned out that Mozart by himself didn’t make anyone smarter, but the monkeywrench that throwing classical music into a steady diet of Top 40 does. It’s about mixing up the patterns to the young brain, giving it lots to play with.
And sing to him. It doesn’t matter if you can hold a tune or what you sound like. Hold him close, high up in your chest between your heart and your throat, and sing. Sing something with plenty of low notes so he can feel the rumble of your song, the bass of your heart along with his. Sing him to sleep at night. It doesn’t matter what; most of my Knucklehead’s babyhood was divided between “You Are My Sunshine” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over and over and over again. They don’t care.
4. For good or bad, you’re his role model. Everything your son is going to learn about how to be a father, a husband, a friend, a boyfriend, a teammate, and a neighbor will begin with you. Whether you want to be or not, you’re always onstage. But don’t be afraid to let him see you fail. That gives you the opportunity to teach him how a man sets things right.
5. Boy or girl, you’ll need these toys to start out: A ball. A stuffed animal. Assorted wooden blocks in different shapes and colors. A doll (or “action figure” if “dolls” make you queasy. But remember – dolls are how boys practice being the dad they see you being. A doll helps a boy order his world, and you can learn a lot about what’s going on in his head by how he talks to his “son.”).
6. Keep your ears open. Keep your head. Seek out all the parenting advice you can find. You never know from where or from whom a great idea will come. But in the end, trust your own good sense. Don’t accept anything because of who said it. Accept it because it makes sense to you. Gather all the information you can, but don’t abandon your own good judgment.
7. You have no idea of the joy that awaits you. People seem to love dumping horror stories on new parents. Those people are useless. What no one ever told me was how much fun my Knucklehead would be from Day One. I was worried when he was born, because I’m not much good with babies. I knew I’d love my boy right away, and I did, but I thought it would be a few years, until he could at least hold his end of a decent conversation, that I’d enjoy his company. I was shocked to find out how much fun he was from the start. No one ever tells you that, and I don’t know why.
Sure, you’re going to work your ass off, especially during the first year. But you never seem to notice it at the time. You’re busy doing what needs to be done, and then the little guy hits you with a smile or a laugh, or a “Dada” and your heart just soars. That first year flies by, and it’s only when you look back on it that you scratch your head and wonder how you made it through.
People seem to love to tell new dads how much their life is going to change, like they haven’t figured that out for themselves. The next year you’re turning over to the baby, that’s true, and you’ll be happy to do it. After that, bit by bit, you’ll start reclaiming the parts of your adult life that matter the most to you. The thing is, as your knucklehead grows up, you’re going to have this new buddy to introduce everything to. The gift your boy is going to give you is that everything you love in life, you’re going to get to rediscover all over again.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?