I didn’t see much of my father until I was in late middle school. It was around this time when I decided to start wrestling as a sport. I wasn’t half bad. Growing up, I was a short and lean, but I was also surprisingly strong. This, coupled with the fact that I am double-jointed and practically impossible to pin, gave me an edge as I wrestled in the lowest weight class. I had won many of my first matches, which felt good given I wasn’t the most athletic. My dad would pick me up after each match to take me home. On the ride home, we would stop by the gas station and grab a Milky Way candy bar. This tradition made the victory feel all that much more significant. Getting that candy bar was my dad’s way of telling me that he was proud of me.
I am not sure how many matches I had gone through before I lost for the first time. I remember holding my head in shame, knowing that I had let my father down. My father said nothing for a long time. We stopped by the gas station, at which point my dad said, “I need to get some gas real quick.” My dad headed inside as he always did (we paid by check or cash in those days). When he returned, he tossed a Milky Way candy bar over to me. I looked up with genuine surprise. I said, “But, I didn’t win.” He responded, “I don’t buy you a candy bar because you win, I buy them because I love you.” I am getting teary eyed as I write these words to you now. That single gesture shook the world under my feet. It was a powerful message that I will never forget.
This memory of mine illustrates two points. The first point is the importance of establishing traditions with our children. I remember the Milky Way candy bar because it was something that my dad and I did that was unique to our relationship and it was a tradition that my father honored without fail. I eagerly anticipated the candy bar as we rode home. I was hungry for my father’s act of praise. That Milky Way filled more than just my stomach; it was filling my heart as well. The second point is the importance of grasping the unexpected. My father took advantage of a crucial moment in my life and flipped my expectations on end. My dad saw the opportunity to show his love to me during a time when it had the greatest impact. These moments don’t happen every day, but they do happen in every child’s life. We can have the same impact on our children when we are sensitive to these moments and make the most of them.
I encourage you, dad, to create special traditions with your son or daughter. Do things with them that are unique to them. Create a language of love that is understood by you and your child. You don’t have to buy your child a candy bar every time you want to tell them you are proud of them. You could take your child fishing every Saturday. You can consistently write to them each week. You could buy a season pass and take your child to each ball game. You could have a one-on-one excursion to a favorite restaurant. Take them out to work on the project car in the garage. Play a game every day after work. Read bedtime stories every night. Cook a meal together every Sunday. Watch a movie every Friday night. Do what works for you and your child, the options are endless. If you want to be effective, just remember to be consistent and involved.
I also encourage you take look for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to do something unexpected. The more out of character it is for you, the better. Have your kid stay up all night during the summer. Work with your child to put on a show for mom. Team up to build a tree house in the backyard. Take a special vacation. Throw a party for no particular reason. Buy your child an expensive gift they have been wanting for a long time. Play a video game with your child. Have your daughter paint your nails. Pull the car over to watch a sunset. Think outside of the box and look for situations that might speak a message of love a little louder than normal.
Making unforgettable memories is one of the most meaningful things we can do for our children. When we establish traditions and grasp the unexpected, we are crafting a vision for them of what a father’s love looks like. With any luck, your children will do the same when they become parents. Don’t be afraid to get messy or try something new. Your children don’t need a perfect dad, they just need a dad they can make history with.