5 True Things I Can’t Tell My Kids

TV dads fall into two basic categories. The first (and largest category) are Dipshit Dads. Dipshit dads are incompetent. Sometimes they are incompetent because they don’t care (Al Buddy) or because they are just a step behind the world around them (Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford). Sometimes they are just kindhearted dummies (Phil Dunphy). These are the kind of men who can’t be trusted with childcare, or laundry, or basic cooking. They either wear their idiocy with pride or live in deluded ignorance of their lack of fitness for basic adulthood. Homer Simpson is the Platonic Dipshit Dad.

The other, smaller group of TV dads are the Super Dad. Think Steven Douglass of My Three Sons. Mike Brady. Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson. Even Herman Munster. The Super Dad is wise, patient, and caring. He is unflappable and unshaken. He is steady and always gives sage advice, which is appreciated by, and acted on, by his children. Sheriff Andy Taylor is the ultimate Super Dad.

What we don’t see much of on TV - because it’s TV - is the reality of fatherhood. Most dads are some combination of the two types and will swing back and forth between them depending on circumstance. Dads can be inspiring and generous. We can also mistakenly dry a favorite sweater until it shrinks to doll size or forget to turn off the oven. We are super. We can be dipshits. Sometimes, we can even be super dipshits. 

That’s because real life is messy and complicated. It doesn’t lend itself to plot lines that can be resolved in a 30-minute sitcom. Nowhere is this truer than in the advice we give. As much as most dads like to think that we are Andy Taylor, dispensing pearls of homespun wisdom. We aren’t exactly Homer Simpson either. We are somewhere in the middle.

One of the reasons for this is that there is some good advice I can’t - or won’t - give my kids. There are some insights into how the world works and how things happen that I simply can’t share with them. It could be that they aren’t ready to hear it. More likely, it is that I am uncomfortable sharing it. I am afraid. Because sometimes the truth is hard. Sometimes, it is scary as hell.

For this week’s 5 things, I will be sharing 5 True Things That I Can’t Tell My Kids. These are pearls of wisdom that - I believe - reflect some fundamental truths about how the world works. And, for whatever reason, I feel like it is probably best not to share it with them. At least most of them. Not yet. 

I don’t know if this makes me a Dipshit Dad or a Super Dad. I rest comfortably knowing that it is probably a bit of both.

The First True Thing I Can’t Tell My Kids

Procrastination solves as many problems as it causes.

About 9 years into my 12-year Army career, I made a significant job change. I went from being in a line company to being a part of battalion staff. I went from leading troops and executing the missions I was given to being a part of the team that developed and supervised these missions. I moved into middle management.

It was an eye-opening experience. I went from being the person in the mission briefing asking questions, pushing back, and suggesting alternative plans, to being the person giving the briefing, being exasperated with all the questions, and saying things like “this is the way we designed it, I just need you to execute.” It was a culture shift for me.

I also got exposed to things that I hadn’t seen when I was “on line.” I learned how many requirements and constraints came from higher headquarters. And how many requests for information. I spent my first few weeks on staff working long hours just answering questions from two levels up about training and readiness and personnel. 

One day our battalion commander came into our office. He sat down next to me. “How’s the new gig?” he asked. “It’s good, sir,” I answered, trying to stay positive. “Yeah,” he said, “that must be why you are here until late every night. All the goodness. How is it really?” I took a breath. “It sucks ass. I want to go back to Bravo Company. I miss my troops and I miss my old job. And if I must make one more PowerPoint, I am gonna lose my shit.” He smiled. “Yes!” he said. “I knew it.”

He went on to explain that I wouldn’t be going back to Bravo Company (“I chose you for a reason”), but that he did have a suggestion. “You get lots of requests from Division and Corps, right?” “All day, every day,” I answered. “Here’s what you do,” he said. “When those requests come in, throw them in the trash.” 

“Umm. What?” 

“You heard me. Trash.” He went on to explain that most of the time when requests came from higher headquarters it was because headquarters that were even higher was asking for them. He said it was a way of passing the buck to someone else. “If they really need something,” he said, “they will send another request. But 90% of the time they won’t. It will just disappear.”

I was skeptical, but I followed his advice. I started throwing requests away. Taskings, demands for information, requests for briefings, all went directly in the trash. It freed up hours each day that we then used to create new training opportunities for the battalion. We did fun, creative things that improved readiness while requests for PowerPoint languished in the recycle bin. And he was right. 90% of them just kind of vanished.

I learned that procrastination was not always a bad thing. 

We live in an immediate world. Immediate communication. Immediate information. We have been conditioned to think that if the phone rings, we answer it. If a text or email comes, we respond. If a notification pings, we give it our attention. None of that is necessary. Breathing is necessary. Email isn’t.

And even though much of this urgency is created, we tell our kids not to put off until tomorrow what they can do today. Sometimes we say it directly. Most of the time we are teaching this lesson with our actions and choices. 

We don’t tell our kids (or ourselves) nearly enough that just because something is urgent, it does not necessarily mean it is significant. Much of what we think is important is just noisy. It insists on our attention and we give it. 

In reality, we can put off most things. There are some people and situations that require immediate attention. Most don’t. A crying child needs attention. A new cover on the TPS report doesn’t. 

The truth is that procrastination solves as many problems as it causes.

The Second True Thing I Can’t Tell My Kids

Hard work doesn’t guarantee good results.

In the state of North Carolina, we have something called School Improvement Teams, or SITs. The role of the SIT is to serve as something akin to an administrative advisory board. The SIT approves the school budget, helps develop the school’s planning document, and provides input on school policy decisions. The SIT is a board made up of parents, administrators, teachers and support staff. When used well, it can be a key part of making a school stronger. I have served on local SITs at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and for the most part it was a rewarding and deeply informative experience.

There were also times that it was less than pleasant. One year, we had to recommend the replacement of our school’s principal. One year, our school was dealing with some overdue repairs that caused great consternation among parents. There were some meetings where particularly contentious decisions would be made and parents in our community would come and be shameless jerks. Those were never fun. 

There was one meeting that should not have been contentious but ended up being unpleasant. Our principal was presenting her plan for school wide character education. It was a good plan and an important topic. One of my fellow SIT members (another dad - men seem to think that serving on a SIT is more sufficiently masculine than being on the PTA), said after the principal’s presentation that he didn’t see the point. “Why are we doing what parents should do? Why can’t we just focus on academics? That is what will make a real difference for our kids.”

The dad went on to talk about how doing well in school had allowed him to achieve what he had in his life. It was all about academic achievement and hard work, he assured us. I was dumbfounded. I pointed out to him that he had grown up the son of a professor at Ohio State, where he had gone to college for free. He had every benefit. It was easy to talk about the value of hard work when you start with a lead, I told him. “You’re wrong,” he said, getting emotional, “I have had to work for everything I have.” Maybe, I said. It started to get heated. When he stood up, another member pointed out that I had spent most of my adult life training to kill people. “A physical confrontation might not be your best choice,” she said. He backed down. He and I never really talked after that.

A few days later, I was talking to one of the girls in my son’s 5th grade class. It was a Friday and I asked if she had any big plans for the weekend. She told me that her cousin was having her big quincanera party the next day in Raleigh. She said she couldn’t wait to go, but she would have to wait because her mom wouldn’t get off work until almost noon. I asked where she worked. “Chick-fil-A,” she answered, “she makes the sandwiches. Saturdays in the fall are busy because they make lots of sandwiches for the football game and she will be there all morning making sandwiches for them to take to the stadium to sell.” Her mom went to work at 4 in the morning on Saturday, making sandwiches for UNC concession stands. She worked 6 days a week. She once told me at a school function that she would work 7 if Chick-fil-A was open on Sunday.

She was one of the hardest working people I ever met. And she and her family were under perpetual threat of eviction. Despite the hours that she and her husband worked, there was always a chance that they wouldn’t make ends meet. They were wonderful parents. And. As hard as they worked, things were always on the edge for them.

One of the things that we are supposed to tell our kids is that hard work matters. That hard work can make you successful. There are a lot of people in this country who bust their whole asses and have almost nothing to show for it. If hard work made you successful, then Donald Trump wouldn’t have failed his way up to the most powerful office in the land. 

The truth is hard work is often secondary to privilege and access and just dumb fucking luck. Lots of people work hard and fail. Lots of people get lucky and then think that it was because of something they did. Like the SIT dad. No dude. You weren’t successful because you worked hard. You may have worked hard, but there was a lot of other stuff happening for you too.

The truth is hard work doesn’t always mean good results.

The Third True Thing I Can’t Tell My Kids

Some people and situations just aren’t worth the effort.

I have an unironic love for the pop music of the 1970s. From early 70s protest songs, through the rise of funk, to yacht rock and disco, I dig all of it. If it was on top 40s radio in the 1970s, it is probably my jam. I get that this makes me an outlier. I am okay with that.

One of the iconic songs of 70s radio is Brandy by Looking Glass. The song is as old as I am. It was released a week before I was born, and topped the charts in late summer, 1972. The song is about, unsurprisingly, a girl named Brandy…

Honestly, I have so many questions.

Who is Brandy? I mean, really? Was she born in this western port town? Did she travel there? What are her hopes and dreams? How have they changed? I can’t imagine that she started out wanting to end up tending bar at the docks, pining for a man that loves his work more than her. Where is she headed? Will she spend the rest of her life there?

I have some theories about Brandy. These are just theories. They may or may not be true.

I think that Brandy came to town full of hopes and dreams. I think she wanted to travel and see the world. Ports (sea and air) are a physical embodiment of hope and escape. When I look at the departures board at an airport, I see a literal world of possibilities. People leaving to go around the world for work and play, and maybe for that special someone. I think Brandy saw the same thing. But then she fell in love, and all those dreams got put on hold.

The problem is that she fell in love with the wrong guy. A man whose life, lover and lady were the sea. Okay. First. Real people are better than water. Usually. Second, Brandy invested her time, her effort, her love, into someone that wasn’t going to love her back, into something that was never going to work out. And now she is slinging whiskey and wondering what’s next.

We are all Brandy sometimes.

We invest our time and ourselves into people that don’t love us back and into situations that aren’t going to work out. And in real life, the stakes are higher than in a 70s yacht rock song.

In real life we try to love abusive parents. We spend money we don’t have to feel a high that fades almost instantly. We fall for the wrong person. We stay in the wrong job for the wrong reason, and we tell ourselves we don’t have a choice. We believe in the wrong leader.

Sometimes we do it because we don’t know better. We don’t see the situation as it is. Sometimes we do know and choose to ignore it. Either way, we are still walking the streets alone, holding hands with our bad choices.

You want your children to believe that things work out. Kids stories have happy endings. Disney may kill off the parents in the first act, but they always live happily ever after. And you want your kids to believe in that dream. And so, you don’t necessarily tell them the truth all the time.

And the truth is that some people and situations just aren’t with the effort.

The Fourth True Thing I Can’t Tell My Kids

After school, no one cares about your grades.

When I first started going to the VA, one of the first things I had to do was get a physical. I am not a fan of going to the doctor, even when medical attention is required. I have patched myself up with everything from duct tape to super glue, and I have even given myself an IV. More than once. The idea of going to a doctor when I am not even sick just so he can tell me that I am not sick has always seemed a little loony to me.

And. Physicals are a thing that the VA asks me to do to get the other care I need (like seeing the neurologist). So, I went. And I met the guy who would be my doctor for the next 6 years until he retired. 

He didn’t look like a doctor. Or at least, he didn’t look like what I expected a doctor to look like at the time. I had grown up on TV. To me all doctors looked like the dudes from MASH or George Clooney. They were all young-ish, in shape, white dudes. I mean, I knew intellectually that other people went to medical school, but I hadn’t seen many of them.

My doc walked in for the exam and I asked him when the doctor was coming in. He laughed and said he was the doctor. I laughed and told him he was funny, and asked again when the actual doctor would be coming in. “Who do you think I am?” he asked. “I dunno,” I responded, “a clerk?” “I can see that,” he said, “but I am actually a doctor. Went to medical school and everything.” 

Doc was older. He was in his early 60s. He had gray hair, was overweight, and had a smoker’s cough. He would eventually tell me that he finally quit on his 50th birthday and he hoped it would buy him a few more years. He cursed. A lot. And I have a remarkably high tolerance for that kind of thing. He was just kind of a mess. He was awesome.

It turned out he was prior service. He had served 4 tours in Vietnam as a Special Forces medic. When he came back to Fort Bragg, he taught future SF medics for a while when one of his commanders said he should try to get into medical school. He finished college at Fayetteville State and then got accepted to medical school at ECU. He said he was still shocked they let him in. 

He said that medical school wasn’t easy for him. He had all sorts of practical knowledge - especially about trauma care - but struggled with the more academic portions of school. He told me that he barely graduated. But he did graduate. “You know what they call the person who comes in last in the class in medical school?” he asked me once. “No, what?” I asked. “Doctor,” he said, winking. 

Despite his less than stellar academic record, he was one of the best doctors I have ever met. He cared SO much for his veterans. He would follow up with me, ask me questions. He would check in the system and make sure I was going to my substance abuse appointments. He would call me if I no showed to find out why. He made sure I took my meds. He would always be completely honest, even blunt, if he saw me fucking up. He was as responsible as anyone for helping me get on the path to healing. 

He retired in 2015. The last time I saw he said he was moving to the lake and fishing with his grandkids the rest of his life. I hope he is still doing that.

He was a living reminder that after you finish with school no one gives a shit about your grades. I don’t care if you were first in your class or dead last. Can you do your job? Do you know how to connect people to your expertise? Can you make a difference for others? Then your grades don’t matter to me. 

High academic performance (as we traditionally define it) is often a proxy for race and class. We evaluate the things that certain people do well, often at the expense of those things that others do well. It’s that old adage about judging a fish on how well it rides a bicycle. Grades are just one way of gauging what someone knows. There are many others, a lot of which a more important.

As a dad, I am supposed to tell my kids that grades are important. And. I honestly care more about whether they are kind. Whether they have character. Whether they can smell bullshit. Those skills will have more impact on their lived experience than what they got in French 3.

The truth is, at a certain point, no one really cares about your grades. They care more about WHO you are.

The Fifth True Thing I Can’t Tell My Kids

Following your passion is not the best path to contentment.

I love common sense sayings. There is a lot of stuff I learned from my grandmother sharing homespun pearls of wisdom. She used to say stuff like “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and “if you are in a hole, quit digging.” Simple, basic ideas that are true and profound in their way. She was also fond of saying that “common sense wasn’t all that common.” I was well into adulthood when I discovered that my grandmother hadn’t come up with these phrases. Most of them she got from Will Rogers. 

Finding out that she had lifted most of the aphorisms I remember from my childhood made me take a second glance at some of what she said. Much of it was good and true. She also said some stuff that didn’t really make sense. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Yeah, that may be true grandma, but why are we catching flies? I just want to avoid them if I am being honest. Flies are kind of gross. She also said some things that were just blatantly racist. She didn’t come up with many of those herself either. 

Some of the things that we hear from people sounds good. It sounds like it could be true. At the very least it sounds like something we want to be true. We say stuff like “America is the greatest country on earth” and “you can do anything that you set your mind to.” Yeah. Nope. We tell our kids that they “can be anything they want to be.” I really wanted to be an NBA player. Turns out just wanting something doesn’t make it so.

Of all these, there is one that you hear a lot that stands out to me as particularly untrue. Like clockwork, every graduation season, you hear commencement speakers around the country all sending some version of the same message. 

Follow your passion.

If you do what you love, they will tell young people, you will never work a day in your life. If you do what you are passionate about, you will find success and connection and joy. Your life will be full of bliss.

Bullshit.

No one has ever gotten successful by simply following their passion. Passion is fickle. It wanes. It changes over time. It may be because you change, it may be because the object of your passion changes. But thinking that you will find something that you love when you are a kid and love it forever is just not likely to work out. 

You can and should be passionate about things. You should try and do things you enjoy. But a true and lasting path to success involves finding something that you are good at. Something that you like enough to invest time in getting better at. Being good at something leads to sustained engagement. Passion comes and goes. Commitment and craft are what builds legacies.

When Barb and I were a young couple, we made it a point to talk to lots of couples that had been married for a long time. We were committed to staying together forever, and we wanted to know the best way to do it. We talked to couples that had been married for decades, and they all said some version of the same thing. If you want to make your relationship work for a long time, then commit to it knowing that there will be times that you have less than 100% positive feelings for each other. You won’t always feel passion for your partner. They will disappoint you and piss you off. Love them anyway. One woman that had been married for almost 50 years told us that there were a couple of years in the 70s where she just didn’t talk to her husband. They were inseparable.

The truth is that passion is variable. It changes. Following may lead to moments of joy. There will also be moments of heartbreak. What I want for my children is to find contentment. The best way to achieve that is to find something you are good at and commit to it over time. Even at times when you don’t necessarily enjoy it.

I know I am supposed to tell them to follow their bliss and find their passion. And I want to do everything I can to help them find joy, especially in a world as chaotic as this one. The truth is contentment is better than joy. It is more durable. It will be there when joy and passion fade.

The truth is following your passion is not the best path to contentment.