My dad, Bill, is an interesting character. He's a Wisconsonian who wears a cowboy hat as his signature look, he celebrated the anniversary of a nearly-catastrophic fall off of a roof by making Mr. Bill cookies ("Oh no!"), and one time when I was helping him clean up his apartment, I found a stack of printed-out recipes that seemed normal until, toward the bottom, I found build instructions for a taser. When I asked him why he wanted to build a taser, he innocently explained that he was trying to find a way to make a car run on water.
And, he's a really good dad. As a kid, he was always excited about my sisters' and my accomplishments and interests; as an adult, he's been one of my best and most loyal friends, always encouraging and reminding me to be true to myself and supporting me whether I'm struggling or succeeding. He's taught me a lot—and I think he has a lot to offer parents everywhere.
Here are the 4 best parenting lessons I learned from my awesome dad.
Showing up counts for everything.
When I was in high school, my dad moved from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin—partially for work and partially because, like so many Boomer couples, my parents were headed inevitably toward divorce. I got to see him on weekends and I regularly talked to him on the phone, but I missed him a lot.
He preserved our relationship by showing up—figuratively, sure, but also by physically attending events that were important to me. For instance: I was in love with music and sang as a soloist in my school's choir. I recall a particular night that I had a recital, and he came down from Wisconsin after work to attend. At the end of the evening he put on his signature cowboy hat, gave me a hug, and said, "I have to get going back to Madison."
"You're not staying?" I asked. After all, it was a long drive. "No," he said, "I have to be at work in the morning."
It could've been disappointing, but personally, I was touched that he'd drive for three or four hours essentially to hear me sing for a few minutes.
Since (and before!) then, he's shown up countless times, letting me crash with him for the summer when I had nowhere else to stay when I was 19, volunteering to come down to Chicago for babysitting shifts after my son was born, and even starting a podcast with me just so that we could spend time together every week. The fact that he wants to spend time with and provide emotional support for me is worth more to me than gold.
Don't be afraid to apologize to your child.
When I was a kid, I was keenly aware of the fact that most adults are (or at least were) practically allergic to apologizing to children. I'm sure it had something to do with hangups about who's the authority in the situation, but when adults lose their temper or make hurtful mistakes and don't apologize, it doesn't make them seem authoritative—it just makes them seem untrustworthy.
In fact, by the time I was in middle school, I was so over this particular kind of adult ego trip that I had a pretty hard-and-fast rule: I will not be in a room alone with two adults. In my experience, whenever kids were alone in conversation with two adults, the adults banded together against the children and invalidated the children's feelings, opinions, and perspectives.
I made an exception when my therapist wanted to have a session with one of my parents. My dad attended, and soon enough, the two of them were doing exactly what I'd feared—dismissing my point of view, to the point that my therapist was laughing (YIKES—needless to say, I never saw her again).
I was so upset that I got up and left to walk home. My dad caught up to me as I was rounding the corner to our house. He apologized profusely, knowing that I'd been uncomfortable with the idea of meeting with the two of them from the start. He didn't make excuses, he listened to me, he agreed to respect my boundary about not being alone in a conversation with more than one adult from there on out, and he and my mom helped me find a new therapist.
Every parent makes mistakes, but not every parent is willing to take accountability, apologize, and provide a remedy for their children—though I wish they were.
Embrace your child exactly as they are.
My dad has had some monumental opportunities to embrace me for who I am—after all, I came out as queer when I was fourteen (way back in 2001, when it wasn't all that common for parents to accept their gay kids), and I came out as trans in the last few years.
But what I love about my dad is that he doesn't just embrace me when I need it the most; he also embraces and celebrates who I am when I don't need it at all. He has repeatedly told me that I am a "beautiful, free spirit," that he admires my artistic ability and craftiness, and that I think about the world in ways he never would have thought of. The fact that I know he can appreciate me for who I am on any given Wednesday afternoon when I'm doing nothing particularly notable makes my life easier on hard days, when I'm struggling to accept and love myself. His acceptance has been a lifeline for me.
Involve your kids in your interests.
Some of my best memories from childhood are watching Batman movies and the X-Files with my dad, playing Zelda and Castlevania with my dad, figuring out how computers worked with his help (keep in mind, this was the early '90s!), and helping him demolish our upstairs bathroom before it got remodeled or wire the electricity in our basement. And even though I hated—I cannot stress HATED enough—playing AYSO and tee ball, it was pretty cool of him to coach my teams, and I'm glad both that I love minor-league baseball and know something or other about football and soccer because of him.
I've already illustrated how my dad was involved in my interests as a kid, but equally important was how he included me in his. I learned so much from him, whether I was learning how to build things and use tools safely, learning basic coding and how to use photo editing and word processing software, or just figuring out game mechanics while I watched him and my big sister take turns with a Nintendo controller (I got too stressed out by video game combat, but I was great at figuring out the puzzles).
That hands-on education not only taught me useful and fun skills; it also made me feel more confident and competent. A lot of the stuff my dad liked wasn't what I was naturally drawn to, but with his encouragement and guidance I was able to take on activities that challenged me and see that even if I'm not great at it, I can still do it and have fun in the process. Today, I'm writing from an office with a huge pegboard full of tools on the wall, a laser cutter and a 3D printer—all things my dad would love to tool around with, and that I've integrated into my artistic practice as an adult.
My 34 years on this planet wouldn't have been as much fun or as rewarding with any other father. I'm lucky and proud to have the dad I do, and I can only hope that one day my son will feel the same way about me.