Good fathers tolerate mistakes

Published 10:29 am Monday, June 15, 2009

I came to a passage that startled me. It caught me off guard, because I hadn’t chosen to read the book for the relatively explicit sex scene upon which I stumbled. Relative, because in comparison to what is now sold openly and even available in school libraries, it is more suggestive than explicit. I was in high school and chose it as the main selection from the Book-of-the-Month Club, likely the first unassigned contemporary novel I had read and, perhaps, the first novel I had ever purchased. The book was George Orwell’s just-released “1984.” Considering what I have read since, I am a bit amused at my reaction, yet without embarrassment.

My father asked what I was reading, and I reluctantly told him. Reluctant, because I didn’t know if my selection would disturb him. When he said, “Okay,” I wondered if he was aware of its nature or contents. He sensed my tension and simply repeated his “okay” in such a way to indicate he both knew and understood.

I look back upon the experience as a defining moment in growing up. I was no longer a little boy and would soon leave for college and a philosophy major. My father understood he needed to allow me more self-determination, and he was trusting me with increased liberty.

Email newsletter signup

A responsible father will give his children the freedom to make mistakes so they can learn by their own experience to do right. It’s no mistake for a father to tolerate some mistakes children make.

There are things in this novel with which he would not want me to agree. But he knew I knew what they were, and I had to make the decision as to what I would accept. The time comes when a young person must make his own decisions, even if they are mistakes, on the one hand, or identical with his father’s on the other. He must accept ownership of his decisions and choices.

In my middle school years (actually, what are now middle school years were then in elementary school), I regularly became frustrated with restrictions and resented them. Even though I occasionally accused him of “stupid rules,” I never actually thought they were stupid. Although I wouldn’t admit it, I could see sense in them. If I didn’t, he explained.

But, I did think: Can’t you trust me? I didn’t risk putting it this way, but he sensed my thinking. I no longer remember the specific words he offered, but they were something to the effect: I do trust you—this far. You need now to earn my trust to the next level.

By the time I was in high school, I found myself doing what was expected of me. (For the most part.) When I did not, I initially thought I had gotten away with something. Later, as I grew to understand my father and fathering, I recognized he had noticed right along but chose to remain patient and not to make an issue of them. (For the most part.) My guess is he recognized my misdeeds by what I labored not to tell him.

I remember remarking to a college girl in our church, one whom I admired and respected, “More than anything else in the world, I want to make my parents proud of me.”

My strongest motivation for doing right, as I look back upon those years, was not to earn my father’s favor but to reward him for the favor I always had from him. My farther had faith in me, and I was loathed to betray his trust. I don’t know if I was as effective a father to my three children as he was to me, but I certainly tried.

And I tried so consciously and strongly, because I had been nurtured by a genuine father who loved me enough to let me make mistakes.

Another thing I didn’t recognize until I was in the same position is how anxiously a father stands by watching and listening with a helping hand ready to reach out when, but only when, this is what is needed.

With such thoughts, observe Sunday as Fathers Day.