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On Father’s Day, Appreciating Different Generations’ Parenting Styles

Technology and social changes make today's dads very different parents than their own


I was talking with some colleagues recently about the minute attention I pay to the daily lives of my three children, all of whom are under 13. Someone asked if my father, who died from complications of Parkinson’s disease at age 89, was similar.

“No way,” I said. “I do a ton of things with my kids every day that my dad never would have done.”

It got us all talking about how shifts in technology, marriage, the workplace and parenting in general have led us to interact with our kids today in ways our own parents would hardly recognize. For example, nearly every day, I:

Make their meals. As a kid, I had the same breakfast and lunch every day for years — and I’m quite sure my dad couldn’t have told you what it was. I don’t remember my father ever feeding me anything. He woke up, got dressed and went to work. We kids helped my mom pack his lunch before she packed our own. When he came home from work — and he never took work home — we all ate dinner together, at the same time.

I wake up well before my kids, go online to start my workday, then feed them breakfast when they emerge, like my mom used to do for me. I’m one of the more than 13 million Americans who work at home at least once a week — in fact, I do it full time. So while my wife, a lawyer, gets herself ready to go to the office, I pack the kids’ sandwiches and snacks. (We’re part of the 16 percent of married couples in which the wife outearns the husband.) Some nights, she comes home in time to make dinner and we can all eat together. Like about half of American families, we share dinner as a unit only about half the week. Other nights, I just get up from my desk when it’s time — or well past time — for the kids to have dinner, prepare something quick and let them eat it while I scan the newspaper and lob questions at them from the couch. Later, I sit down to eat with my wife.

Welcome them home. From about the third grade on, I was a latchkey kid. I came home by myself from school each day, let myself in and ate graham crackers with cream cheese while watching game shows and early Japanese cartoons. I don’t recall my father ever asking me if my homework was done when he got home or reviewing it for mistakes.

My kids come in from school and expect to see me waiting to hear about their day — OK, actually to badger them into telling me something, anything about their day. If I’m on a work-related call and give them the shush-and-go-to-the back motion, they’re resentful. Every evening, I check their school bags to see what their assignments are, then help them manage their time — by, you know, telling them, “Go do your homework now!”

Offer constant feedback. My dad, a classic Greatest Generation type, was generally a pretty quiet guy. He’d let you know he was pleased with your grades, but didn’t feel a need to pontificate on your character after each report card. (This changed in later years, when, on the days his Parkinson’s would offer him windows to speak clearly, he prioritized telling us he loved us and was proud of us.)

I frequently sit my kids down and talk about the challenges ahead of them, in school, sports or life. It could be that, unlike my dad, I’m just unable to keep from verbalizing my worries about their futures. Doesn’t seem to help much, though: When I’m through, they usually just ask why I feel the need to constantly bum them out.

Yell at them. My dad never yelled. Ever. He generally left us to our own reading, playing or TV watching and let our mother manage our chores. And yet, when we weren’t doing what we should, he could deliver devastating guilt with just a sharp glance and a disappointed “tsk.”

My kids have conditioned themselves not to pay attention to anything I ask them to do until I raise my voice. This could be a byproduct of the child-centered “attachment parenting” approach so widespread today but coming under increasing fire for allegedly creating a generation of dependent, insecure and spoiled kids who need a jolt to do anything for themselves, like, say, picking up their dirty clothes. Which brings me to…

Do their laundry. It’s not that my dad felt this chore was beneath him, but as a guy who married in 1949, he did have certain cultural expectations for his spouse, even though, most of the time, my mom worked outside the house as well.

I do everyone’s laundry — and why not? I’m home more than anyone else. And I want to be. Like so many parents today, I’m willing to make some career sacrifices to spend more time at home, with the goal of being a more involved parent than the ones I grew up with. That works just fine for my wife, who loves and maximizes her time with the kids, but is no homebody and has never had a desire to be an at-home mom or to sideline her career to be able to pick them up from school.

Text them — and read their texts. My dad couldn’t text us, of course. But we could also pretty safely assume that he didn’t know where we were after school most days. If I had any interest in girls, he didn’t want to know about it, or at least couldn’t bring himself to ask about it.

I can text my two older kids at any time to tell them to come home or to arrange their transportation. I suppose it’s possible they could figure these things out for themselves, but they never really have, so who knows? They’ve also been advised that for the privilege of having phones, all of their texts are subject to my review. And so I know my older son’s crushes and who’s crushing on him.

What’s Been Lost?

Like many people, I’ve come to appreciate the way my mother and father parented the further I’ve moved away from childhood. I often find myself telling my kids how their late grandparents would never have let them get away with half the things they do, but then catch myself thinking, “Well, whose fault is that?”

Somehow, my dad’s reserved approach gave him more authority, if less of a bond. It has begun to occur to me, though, that my constant contact with my kids, my running commentary on their lives, may have deprived them of surprise in our relationship. They may know me too well.

For so many years, I assumed that my dad, while being a loving, funny and basically gentlemanly guy, wasn’t necessarily paying all that much attention. And then, almost 20 years ago, we cleaned out my old house to prepare for my parents’ first step into the senior-care circuit, their move to the senior residence where they’d live until they had to enter a nursing home. That day, I found a photo album in my dad’s closet I’d never seen before.

Turns out, it was filled with school-show programs, graduation tickets and news clippings by and about me — I wrote for my hometown paper sometimes in high school and was mentioned in it a few times, mostly thanks to my uncanny ability to win its weekly college-football prediction contest. There were things in the album I’d forgotten about, items that had long ceased being important to me. He’d been clipping them all along.

It was one of the loveliest surprises I’ve ever had and it made me rethink my version of my childhood. I can’t help but wonder what kind of surprise I could ever leave my kids that could match it, but I’m also comforted by the fact that they won’t have to wait decades to find out just how much I really care.

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