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Lessons from Dad

May 9, 2009 | by Elliott Katz

Learning to become a better father.

When my father died several years ago at the age of 92, I was going through a divorce involving a custody dispute over my daughters. Like many fathers in this situation, I feared losing these precious relationships. In a divorce -- or in intact families, for that matter -- it's easy for a father to be relegated to the role of provider of money and little else. I had already observed that when money is all kids get from their father, these kids seem to resent their fathers the most.

My father wasn't rich financially, and I didn't miss anything he didn't buy me. I wished I had spent more time talking with him and learning about his own life. I realized what I missed most about my own father was what I wanted to give to my daughters.

My father lost his parents when he was young. His father died in the flu epidemic of 1919, when my father was 12. When he was 16, his mother died. At age 22, he came on his own to Canada, a month before the Depression hit in 1929. He worked hard, started a small business and supported my mother and four children. I wished I had asked him how he overcame the challenges he faced. I wished he had taught me more of the wisdom he learned.

The more I shared my life lessons with my daughters, the more it pushed me to grow as a father. I had to be a role model of what I was trying to teach.

I started sharing stories with my daughters about my own life and experiences. I told them about my dreams -- some became goals that I achieved, some are still works in progress and others forgotten and replaced with immediate needs. I taught them some of the lessons I'm still learning, the hard way, as I grow at mid-life -- lessons about taking responsibility, about not expecting life to always be smooth, because it rarely is, and about teaching myself to see challenges as opportunities. I hoped it would give them a head start in their own learning about life.

I had wondered if they would actually be interested. Once we started, they loved hearing these stories. They wanted to know about me, just as I had wanted to know about my dad.

An unexpected result: the more I shared my life lessons with my daughters, the more it pushed me to grow as a father. I had to be a role model of what I was trying to teach.

These talks brought us closer. My daughters started telling me about the events in their lives and asked for my advice. I was moved when my younger daughter, now a teenager, told me that she had started a section in her notebook called "Lessons from Dad." I thought about my own father -- he would have been proud.

Whether you're a married or single dad, you can nurture a closer relationship with your children by telling them about the experiences that shaped your life. If you're a mother, encourage your husband to do this. And if you wish your father would talk more to you about his own life and he's still alive, ask him and listen.

The things you buy for your children may last a few months or years. What you teach them can last a lifetime.

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