Monday 9 December 2019

'You can’t burden kids with the baggage of your own fears'

Dad Gordon Smith says there is no point pushing your own fears upon your children would be the biggest dereliction of dad duty he could make.

Little girl swinging in motion
Little girl swinging in motion

Gordon Smith

Worrying about the future was never something I did much of before kids came along; it’s just not the way I'm wired. Things in my life have tended to take care of themselves for the most part, and I’ve been happy to faff about aimlessly without thinking too much about any kind of bigger picture.

A great piece of advice from my late grandmother was: there’s no point in meeting trouble halfway. A simple, brilliant bit of wisdom from a fantastic woman. She only told it to me relatively late in her life, but right at that moment I knew I’d found the perfect justification for the way I’d been living my life all along.

My wife, on the other hand, doesn’t so much meet trouble halfway as arrive unannounced at its front door, give it a lift back to our house and insist it hangs on for dinner.

I realise I could be heading into a gender stereotyping minefield, so in the interests of impartiality I’ll avoid any explosions by stating that I know plenty of uptight dads and easy-going mums. My point is, balance is what matters. It shows our kids there’s usually more than one point of view, and I don’t think it sends a good message if both parents are quivering wrecks. You’d end up with kids in need of more therapy than Tony Soprano.

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That’s not to say I don’t worry about anything at all. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m so laid back I’m practically horizontal. My wife reads this column and I can imagine her reaction would be along the lines of: “who is this person you’re writing about and when are you going to introduce me to him?”

Weak points

So in the interests of disclosure, my weak points are busy roads and water. When Aisling asks me if she can play outside on the street with her friends, I have to stop myself from inviting half the neighbourhood into our house as a safer alternative. Similarly, when we went for a family trip to the local swimming pool this summer, I had to watch with a blend of amazement, pride and sheer terror as Aisling popped her head under the water’s surface and did a passable impression of an eel. I think I held my breath for longer than she did – and I wasn’t even underwater. These creatures I helped to bring into the world and once held helpless in my arms, are now motoring along on a scooter faster than I can move, or slithering across the pool unaided.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think I’d be doing my job as a dad if I showed them this scared me. At times like these, I think of myself as a duck: unruffled and calm above the surface while churning frantically below just to maintain the appearance. Why the charade? The experience of the past six years has taught me that sometimes you can’t burden kids with the baggage of your own fears. (Conor, now three and a half, sees crocodiles around every corner lately so he obviously doesn’t need me to get terrified of something.)

But as far as over-protective fathering goes, on a scale of one to Liam Neeson, I’d say I’m a three and a half at best. For example, a new playground opened near my parents’ house recently and it has Aisling and Conor’s favourite piece of equipment: a zip line.

I wonder if whoever chooses these games does it for the kids’ sake or the parents, because it struck me later that the zip line sums up parenting pretty well. You give kids a helping hand to get them started, maybe with more enthusiasm than is strictly necessary. Out they go into the world, hanging by a thread (well, okay, a large galvanised cable attached to a pulley, but bear with me).

Next comes a prolonged moment between my helping hand (well, forceful shove…) and the juddering stop the tyre makes on connecting with the stopper, jerking the child skywards. On the one hand, I can see they’re having great fun – it’s written all over their faces. What they don’t see written all over mine is the knowledge that they’re just a slip of the finger away from losing their grip and flying over the fence into the next field.

In those slow seconds, I won’t be of much help and I have to trust their judgement to hold fast to the rope. If I wanted an easier life, I could push them more gently, or better yet, suggest a nice board game to play indoors instead. But such measures would only hold them back, and that would be the biggest dereliction of dad duty I could make. What happens next is entirely down to them. My job at that point is to pick them up if they fall, or just pick up the hospital bill.

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