June 17, 2023

How our dad’s unconditional love made us bulletproof


Happy Dad’s Day to all the fathers and father figures out there.

Our Dad, with his signature brand of enthusiasm, has always provided us with what lasted: love, security, and confidence, the kind that settles down deep in your bones and insulates you from fear. We were bulletproof, not because we felt entitled to special treatment, but because we knew positively we could not mess up bad enough to ever lose Dad’s ridiculous joy in us. Thus, we were free to take risks, to try and fail.

I wrote this a few years ago, but it bears resurfacing again — in honor of my Dad.

Me, as a grown adult subject to book reviews as a matter of my profession:

“Dad, I got a bad review from some mean guy on the internet.”

“Well he is obviously just a jackass who couldn’t find his behind with two hands.”

Did that reviewer have a point? Was his assessment of my work partially credible? Didn’t matter. Irrelevant. My dad deemed him an idiot sight unseen. This matter-of-fact pronouncement on my enemies is simply the way I was raised (by a pastor mind you, albeit a rogue one).

I am the oldest of four kids born in the ’70s and ’80s, and you’ve never met a dad more into his kids. All of us sincerely believed we were special children, that the universe blessed us with talent and charm, intelligence and wit. We bought all our Dad’s hype. He believed in us irrationally, which made us accidentally confident.

We were solidly in our twenties before discovering we were just sort of medium, but by that point, it was too late; we missed the window of insecurity and entered adulthood like, Here we are! (And the world was like, So? Which did not deter us in the slightest.)

ca428990c8affcbf4c12fcb31ffc6100f6a3572c.jpgDad is also a cattle rancher who won’t suffer fools (unless it is one of his spawn).

e6627d76439d4c988f652e177c870e0f3511634e.jpgMom and Dad with my oldest at Senior Night when I was out of town and I had a nervous breakdown about MISSING SENIOR NIGHT. Parenting, man.

Dad was overly generous and still is. On an absolutely working class salary, he and mom paid for four kids to go to college and not one of us emerged with a penny of debt. I have no idea how they did it.

To be sure, I had no idea money was ever an issue growing up, even though hindsight has given me the understanding that my parents scrimped and scraped and suffered many sleepless nights. We didn’t take fancy vacations or have a lot of extras. We were an ordinary family whose parents worked hard to make ends meet; our life wasn’t cushioned by privilege or luxuries. None of this ever occurred to me as a kid. Our life never felt scarce because it was full of so much love and laughter. Still today, we all think we’re incredibly funny, which must be as annoying as it is FANTASTICALLY ENTERTAINING. We’ll be here all night!

In fact, we’ve made fun of Dad for years at Christmas because he fusses and watches the bank account like a hawk in the preceding weeks, but every single year around December 23rd, he looks under the tree and tells Mom: “Go buy some more. We don’t have enough here for everyone.” Mom confided that one year in the early ’80s, she and Dad were so zeroed out during the Christmas season, they pawned almost all their precious jewelry and valuables to put presents under the tree. I could sob my eyes out just thinking of it.

As a member of a generation convinced we must provide stimulating, elite, expensive opportunities for our children, let me tell you as someone who experienced none of that: Not only did we not miss a thing, we were the luckiest kids on earth. Our dad, with his signature brand of enthusiasm, provided us with what lasted: love, security, and confidence, the kind that settles down deep in your bones and insulates you from fear. It communicated to us rowdy, dirty kids that we would never go alone a day in this life. We were bulletproof, not because we felt entitled to special treatment, but because we knew positively we could not mess up bad enough to ever lose Dad’s ridiculous joy in us. Thus, we were free to take risks, to try and fail, to come home with our tails between our knees as kids are wont to do.

You want to set your kids up for success? Be their biggest fan. Not because they are prodigies (they’re not) or destined for the NFL (they’re not) or the smartest children ever born (they’re not), but just in their ordinary, regular lives, where they are testing the waters and occasionally succeeding and often failing and watching the eyes of their parents to decide their worth in it all. Some of my dad’s best work was after we’d made an enormous mess of something, ruined beyond words. He helped us find a path forward, he noticed any redemptive thread we spun trying to fight our way to the surface. Failure wasn’t a deal breaker in our house; it was just rewoven into our development as healthy adults who knew what to do with mistakes.

Parents, be generous. Go way overboard with your words, your presence. These are unquestionably more valuable than what you can or cannot provide financially or experientially. I swear to you. Build a home generous in spirit and you’ll set your kids up for life. There is no such thing as too much love spoken into your children’s lives. You know who will be there to knock them down? Everyone else. The whole world. That isn’t our job. We occupy the tiny, minuscule portion in their life scripts labeled “parents”; every other character exists outside that relationship. I promise, they’ll have no shortage of adults prepared to take them down a notch, burst their bubbles, and crush a dream or two; no emerging adult is exempt from humiliation. Your kids will have plenty of bosses, teachers, coworkers, critics, authority figures, professors, reviewers, analyzers, judges, and maybe perhaps as in our case, arresting officers. They’ll all be there to keep it real, knock it down, level the playing field, toe the line.

There is a vast array of jackasses who cannot find their behinds with two hands.

But maybe we can take a page from my dad’s notes: there is absolutely no reason for our kids to ever doubt that we are their biggest fans, their loudest cheerleaders, their stanchest defenders, their truest believers. When they have nowhere else to look, they should know the path home will always be paved with loyalty. We’re their people. Now. Forever. When everything is coming up roses and when it is in a heap of ashes; our belief in them is unwavering. It isn’t excessive to have two people to count on in this hard, mean world. We teach them what to do with failure, we celebrate their successes, and we heartily, vocally condemn their enemies who obviously don’t know how to properly review a book.

Thanks, Dad.

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