If You Want the Season
of a Lifetime, Prepare for It
* * *
Without spring training, the first half of a baseball season would be a calamity of walks, strikeouts, and errors. Take the time to work on fundamentals; understand your role as a father and cultivate a willingness to change yourself for the good of your child.
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
Henry David Thoreau
This summer I was walking behind a father and his son on the way to the beach. The father was a young man in his thirties and the little boy was around four. The boy was holding his father's hand, looking up at him as they walked, and asking him questions that I couldn't help but overhear. "Do you like me, Daddy?" the little boy asked. "Of course, I like you," the father replied. "I don't like you, Daddy," the boy responded. I hesitated, feeling that I should not be privy to this conversation. Then after a prolonged pause, the little boy repeated, "I don't like you, Daddy. I love you."
This story doesn't end here. As I looked closely at these two, I noticed that below the father's baseball cap his hair had an uneven quality because clumps of it were missing and his scalp was showing through. Later that day on the beach, I saw the father again. He had his shirt off and I could see a large red scar down the center of his abdomenfrom a recent surgery. This father knew too well what healthy fathers can so easily forget: Being a father is a precious opportunity.
Wanting to make the most of this precious opportunity could lead you to ask "How do I prepare myself to be a good father?" You could be a man who is seriously thinking ahead to what it will take if and when you and your wife decide to become parents. Or you could be one of the many men who has been surprised and slightly stunned by the statement "We are pregnant." Perhaps you are already a father, maybe a father of more than one child, or a single father. And even though everything is going reasonably well, your parenting has become routine and lethargy has settled in. You sense that your fathering needs to regain its vitality and focus.
It is also possible that you are a father who has just had one of those disastrous days that we all have, a day when we demonstrate the uncanny ability to do and say the wrong thing at the wrong time and to act in a way that we swore we never would. If that is the case and the reason that you are now opening this book, take heart. You probably have the most important requirement for being a good father: a willingness to change.
This is a primary way in which baseball and fathering are similar. We start out as rookies with ample portions of problems and promises. Early on we have holes in our swing or a propensity for giving up long home runs, but we also have moments of brilliance. Minimizing weaknesses and maximizing brilliance is the work of player development. Back in the early seventies, the Kansas City Royals had a baseball academy in Florida for this very reason. It was there that they groomed Willie Wilson, Frank White, and future Hall of Fame member George Brett.
Like baseball, fathering is a path of development. It will not allow us to be the same people in the end that we were at the beginning. Through repeated practice and repeated gaffes, fatherhood will enable us to develop admirable qualities such as self-sacrifice, restraint, perseverance, flexibility, and more. These qualities will either develop with our conscious assistance or in spite of our unconscious reluctance. But if we are fathers in the true sense of the word, they will develop. Fatherhood will call on us to grow in ways that we never imagined.
Self-development can take place at different speeds and on different levels. There are quick changes that occur on a superficial level. These readily noticeable changes involve alterations in thoughts and ideas. These changes come quickly, but they just begin to scratch the surface. Their value is limited; it is simply too easy to talk a good game. Slow change is what we're after, and it occurs on a deeper level. It is the breaking of long-held habits. These changes go unnoticed as we go about our business and then, after much work, we are surprised one day to see that we are different. We have taken our game to the next level. This is the opportunity that fatherhood presents to us. It gives us the chance to develop in a deeply significant way. To effect this change, fatherhood will place demands on us. It will ask that we bring the same intensity and focus to parenting as we bring to our most serious endeavors. And it will ask for our best on three distinct levels, through our active participation, emotional involvement, and conscious and thoughtful awareness.
One example of how we need to prepare ourselves is in the transition from work to home. When you have already given your best for eight or ten hours, it is difficult to have more to give. Our best forces of heart and mind have been intensely engaged during the day, and now as we arrive home we try to separate ourselves from work consciousness and turn our attention to the home. Often, this is not easy to do.
The Baltimore Orioles, the closest thing Washington, D.C., has to a local baseball team, had a unique outfielder back in the late seventies. His name was Ken Singleton, and he had an unusual habit when he came to bat that worked quite well for him. Whenever he stepped into the batter's box, he would reach down and pick up three pebbles. This was his disciplined routine, and he did it without fail. These pebbles were a reminder that each time he batted, he was entitled to three good pitches. This consciously repeated act heightened his awareness and increased his discipline and patience as a hitter by keeping him from being overanxious. Whenever I heard the radio announcers mention this ritual, I always thought of it as a practice from an imaginary book called Zen and the Art of Hitting.
I think that fathers need a similar ritual. We should stop outside the door when we are about to make the transition to our children's world and imagine that we are about to pick up one, two, or three stones, depending on the number of hours we will have with our children before their bedtime. At this moment we should remind ourselves that we are going to spend these hours with the most important people in the world.
The fact is that our children grow up far too quickly. Before most of us are ready, our children's focus will shift and we will no longer be the center of their attention. In fact, in all too short a time, they will be out the door and on their own. If we care about the relationship we have with our children, these evening hours are critical. This is when a large portion of the real parenting work happens. This is when we need to begin to meet our children in three fundamental waysactively, emotionally, and thoughtfully.
Roger Kahn's book Memories of Summer contains an interview with Willie Mays that sheds light on these three aspects. Mays is discussing what it takes to be a great ballplayer:
So much is mental. I believe if you can't think, you can't play [on a good level]. Baseball or any other sport. People don't appreciate this enough....
Some people who watched Jim Brown play football said, "Man, he's big and fast and strong. He's gotta be good." But they don't realize that when Brown was running with the ball, he was always thinking ahead, two or three moves ahead of the tacklers....
Muhammad Ali. Sure he was big and quick. But he was such a good boxing thinker. He could figure the round he'd win in before the fight. Then he made his moves and it would come out like he predicted. He was another athlete [who was] great because he would think.... Julius Erving in basketball. Dr J. had all the moves. He had a great body to play basketball, but he had the moves because he knew how to think.
... and I see something else with Michael [Jordan]. You remember long ago I told you, a player has to love the game. I look at Michael and I see a player who loves basketball. He loves playing it the way I loved playing baseball. Intelligence, sure, but love is a big reason Michael can play basketball the way he does.
To be a great ballplayer or any sort of great athlete, you need more than just physical ability. You also need keen mental awareness and a deep emotional involvement. These are the same three key components of great fathering.
The obvious starting point for engaging in the game of baseball is active participation. We must be physically present in all the daily routines and rituals. Batting practice, fielding practice, calisthenics, running, and stretching require our complete active involvement. Fathering places the same demands on us.
Picture a father arriving home after a long day at work. He opens the door to the house and is greeted by a flurry of activity. The warmth and familiarity of the home are comforting, and inwardly the father breathes a sigh of relief. After being "on" all day, he is glad to be "off." But at the same time he is exhausted from the long day at work and drained from the rush-hour commute. He exchanges greetings, changes his clothes, and begins to decompress. As he makes his way past the living room he is drawn to the couch. Tonight, he is eager just to sit down, if only for a moment.
As he sinks into the soft cushions of the couch he reaches for the remote control and gives himself over, if only briefly, to the world of the evening news. Instantly he is engrossed, but this will not last. Before the father has noticed, the children have drawn near. Soon they are underfoot, up on the chair, and crawling across his lap. "Daddy, Daddy" is their incessant cry.
Here is the first opportunity for growth. The children are desperately seeking an active father. They are searching for some signs of animated life from the man whose face is illumined in a pale blue light and who neither moves nor speaks. The children long for their father to get up, to do or say something, at the very least just to sit up and respond.
It is only a recent historical development that fathers are not active around the home. For the great expanse of human history, men worked at home. They tilled and herded; they built and repaired. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has become the custom that fathers work outside the home, thereby denying children an experience for which they long, to observe firsthand their father's active and purposeful working.
Our children long for us to do things in their presence. Most fathers are unaware how important even the simplest actions can be. The way we take off our shoes and hang our coat, the way we store our tools or open our briefcase, all make a lasting impression on our children. Even the objects associated with our workour toolbox, our computer, our legal pads and stationeryhave power and appeal. If we think back to our own early childhood, we will recall how much we admired what our fathers could do when we were young and not yet able.
Children long to be active just like their parents. They want to learn how to do all that they see us and others do. At some point it will probably fall to us to teach our children how to ride a bike, drive a car, row a boat, or use a saw. Our active involvement will have an added dimension; it will be an educational experience. All that we do in our children's presence is instructive, more instructive than most of us realize.
Being active, however, is not the easiest task, particularly after a hard day's work. It is especially difficult for fathers to shift from the activities of the work environment to the activities of home. Whether we are coming directly home or picking up our children from daycare or a friend's house, some inner adjustment is necessary. It takes us awhile to adjust to a child's world, a world that has a different sense of time and sometimes no apparent sense of order and organization. We need to be ready when we enter the home because this is a pivotal moment in the day for everyone in our family.
Since my sons were in high school, I have been a coach at our school. On a number of occasions, I have had serious high school ballplayers turn to me on a spring day, either at practice or after a game, and simply say," I love this game." This was the same feeling that prompted the great baseball enthusiast and Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks to say, "Let's play two today." When we participate with strong emotional focus, we belong to the game and it is obvious that we care. This is the same heartfelt way that fathers need to meet their children.
Being emotionally accessible to our children, however, is often difficult for dads. This is partly because we are not accustomed to relating in this way, nor is it encouraged in the workplace. It is also because many of us did not have the experience of seeing our own fathers relate on an emotional level when we were young, and so we lack models for this type of behavior.
In speaking with other dads, I discovered that it was not uncommon for our own fathers to have come home from work in a state of emotional upset. A bad day on the job could be sensed in an almost physical way. Our father's emotions certainly affected the atmosphere in the home. What we, as fathers, feel helps to create the emotional weather in our home, the weather that our children experience. It was not uncommon for me or my friends to sense the weather change from pleasant to stormy when our fathers came home from work. Our father's inner life could be swirling with the events of the day and all we would be told was, "Leave your father alone. He's had a hard day." We were left to make sense of our father's moods without guidance. When we became parents we had no choice but to set off in a new direction, knowing only that we didn't want to go that way.
This is another example of how important the transition is from work to home. It is essential that we not enter our homes encumbered by the cares of the day. We need to free ourselves from the day's experiences so that our emotional activity can focus on our family.
A friend of mine runs his own auto body shop, a very successful business with a large staff and an excessive amount of insurance-related paperwork. He spends his day in demanding, but enjoyable, work. When work is over, he has this ritual before heading for home: He pulls his car into one of the bays and washes it, whether it needs it or not. With the only sound being that of the hose, with the feel of the water on his hands, with the large rhythmical sweep of his arm as the towel moves across the hood and the fenders, he wipes away the tensions of the day. Purposeful physical activity can be the perfect remedy for the stress and nervousness that are often by-products of our busy lives. To be ready to be emotionally involved at home, a father needs to begin preparation even before he reaches the door.
Emotional involvement is harder to describe than physical activity. It is an inner activity and therefore more elusive. Yet our emotional activity is of great importance to our children. They learn to assess it in our features. They are sensitive to it in our tone of voice. They find it hidden in a casual and seemingly innocuous remark. What we feel and that we feel matters to our children.
Perhaps the best way to understand the essentials of emotional involvement is to picture a past relationship, one when you were young and very much in love. Think of the way that you listened then, as if every word conveyed some special meaning. Think of the way that you observed so many details: gestures, facial expressions, a characteristic posture. It was as if observation itself were a sensual pleasure and each perception revealed to you a secret about the person you loved.
Now it may be hard to duplicate that kind of emotionally charged observation. And yet it provides the starting point for our emotional involvement with our childrena quiet, sympathetic, yet active, watching and listening to all that our children do and say so that we can uncover some glimpse of who they are. It is certainly how they watch us.
Emotional involvement also means finding physical ways to be expressive. Some dads are good at this. I admire fathers who are able to show their affection for their children through a spontaneous physical embrace, to effortlessly draw their children up on their lap, to put an arm around them, and to kiss them goodbye whenever they leave. To physically express our affection is important. Those fathers who can do this with ease have a great gift; it's something the rest of us have to work to obtain.
Being able to express what we feel in words is essential as well. We must be able to convey verbally our deep appreciation for our children. Although I do not believe in cheapening affection by expressing it too often in merely sentimental terms, I do think that if we accustom ourselves to express our appreciation and love for our children regularly, it will make it possible for even deeper communication to occur when special moments arise. It will also help to prevent situations like the one Will Glennon describes in his book Fathering.
My father came over to see me on a Saturday, very agitated. He'd been listening to a talk radio program about fathers and a number of callers had been complaining about how much it had hurt that their fathers never told them they loved them. I can remember at least three times my father told me he loved me, but he couldn't remember and was worried that he had really blown it. There we were in the garage, me trying to finish some dollhouse furniture I had promised my daughter and him trying to figure out how to say "I love you." It took him nearly an hour, and I think it was the hardest thing he ever did in his life.
It wasn't hard for this father to love his son. It just had become increasingly difficult for him to express that love out of a lack of practice.
Any undertaking that asks for our best will require heightened awareness. In our most serious endeavors we are attentive and thoughtful on so many levels. We know that we simply can't do a job well if we aren't sufficiently thoughtful. Fathering is no different. It requires that a mindful state of awareness influence our actions and our emotional responses.
This thoughtful awareness will require an alert and wakeful state of mind. The price we pay for a good relationship with our children is that we pay attention. We will not be able to achieve this if we are living in the past, preoccupied, our thoughts still dwelling on the events of the workday. Similarly, we cannot get ahead of ourselves and be concerned or worried about something that we need to do tomorrow. Instead, we must be like Ken Singleton coming to the plate, completely present in the moment. Truly great hitters like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ted Williams knew that it was the absolute focus of their attention that made them so effective.
Because we lead busy lives, our children will come to us most often when we are in the middle of other work. Fathers who can give their complete attention to their children, at least long enough to see what is being asked, are truly special. Some of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet members complained that Lincoln would willingly drop everything to attend to his children when they interrupted his White House meetings.
Fathering will challenge us to be mentally alert despite the fact that we feel drained at the end of the day. After a late night, a long commute, or an exhausting day, we may feel beat, if not beaten. Little by little we have to rouse ourselves and attend. We have to develop the ability to become watchful before we respond so that we don't act or speak without thinking. Our thoughtful awareness needs to intercede between our children's actions and our immediate and sometimes regrettable response. The cool, reflective power of our thinking is the perfect antidote for the hot flash of anger that can plague fathers.
Most of all, we need a framework to help us understand our children and their behavior. We need an effective way of comprehending why our children act the way they do and how we can interact with them in a meaningful way. To understand our children, their development, and our role as parents, we need a conceptual framework, one that will enable us to see our children in a new way and better understand what they need from us.