On Sunday afternoon, I spoke to my cousin, Mina. One of the questions she asked me was how I became a good father after all the abuse I had suffered as a child – how I broke the cycle …
To begin with, my wife is a natural born mom – and being an elementary school teacher, she had studied child development pretty extensively in college. She knew definitively how she wanted to raise our children. I knew what not to do from being Pat and Ed’s child, Rhonda knew what to do from instinct and study.
We were emotionally involved from the moment our oldest child was born. We practiced Attachment Parenting – our young children were seldom away from us, they even slept with us. We were always there for them, never allowing them to ‘cry it out.’ I spent many nights rocking a baby, or sleeping on my back while my child slept with his or her head resting on my heart. We wanted them to know and understand we were always there for them. Always.
We had immense respect for our children, and we built relationships with them. We didn’t make arbitrary rules they had to follow. We were not punitive. As a result, our children wanted us to be happy with them, not disappointed in them, and their behavior usually reflected their desire. Proper discipline is not punishing a child for making the wrong choice, it is gently guiding a child to the right choice.
I understand that there is a clear purpose for childhood; to explore the world and find your place in it. To discover your passion, your dreams and your talents. To find your gifts and learn who you are. As parents, we play a critical role in this discovery – we facilitate and make it possible for our child to become who he or she was born to be. We follow their lead – helping them achieve by setting goals and rewarding accomplishment.
I figured out what was important to me, what I thought they should know to be successful at life; namely, to question all authority, even mine – and I taught them this from the beginning. I wanted them to know themselves, and to be true to themselves above all. I wanted them to think for themselves and make their own decisions. I wanted them to understand that they could talk to me about anything – there would never be judgement or reprisal. They had to know that my life wasn’t my own, it was their’s … and that would never change. I am their father; first, last and always.
I don’t think there is one right way to break the cycle of abuse, but for me it was all about understanding my role as a father, and the purpose of childhood. They had to feel loved, safe, wanted and valued. They had to have a solid relationship with their parents to be healthy and happy. They had to have their emotional and physical needs met in order to do the work of being a child … and I had to make that all happen.
When you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, everything in life is easier – being a parent included. I had a plan – a well defined path to walk, and I did everything in my power not to veer off the path. When I was at a loss, I thought about what my father [and mother] would have done … and I did something else!
I found that my deep and intense emotional attachment to my children was the strongest guiding force in my life – by investing myself so completely from the moment I became a father, I broke the cycle. There was just no way I could ever hurt someone I loved so deeply, and respected so completely.
It’s fair to say that I feel abusing a child to be the most vile, immoral thing anyone can do — especially if you are the child’s father, the person who is supposed to love, protect and nurture. I have never wanted to be like my father, not in any way, and knowing that was empowering all by itself; when you know better, you do better.
Today, my children are young adults, but they still come to me for guidance and advice. They tell me their plans for the future, the future I helped make possible. One son studies medicine, the other studies political science and law, and my daughter, at seventeen, is already so accomplished in her chosen field her older brothers often teasingly tell her to stop for a while because she is making them look bad. They share their fears, dreams and broken hearts with me – and they allow me to know them, to know who they truly are – and that is a priceless gift.
In retrospect, I don’t think breaking the cycle is so very difficult …
Continuing it is what is unthinkable.