Unconditional

Although at best, it could only be considered a minor theme, woven throughout the Academy Award-winning “The King’s Speech” is a story of a father and a son. In this case, the father is an ailing king, and his son, a duke in line for the crown.

More than any other theme or detail in this beautifully told story, the gravity of this relationship is what has stuck with me. Even in a palace, with abundant resources, a son is still scarred by his father’s words, actions, and inactions.

I spend much of my professional life examining the impact of absent fathers on largely poor, urban youth who have added obstacles to overcome along with fathers who show up only when its convenient. The King’s Speech was a powerful reminder that even with the resources of a whole nation at your disposal, perceptions of how your father loves or disapproves of you can shape your future more than all the best intentions.

My grandfather passed away this month, and in the space and silence left behind, I’ve though about the legacy of fathers, even beyond their own children.

In a generation of stoic, emotionally distant fathers, my grandfather was involved, invested. He loved practical jokes, playing outside, and readily involved his children in his world, even when it meant the task at hand would take much longer to accomplish. He delighted in giving his daughter’s gifts, particularly around Christmas, and took pride in their accomplishments and triumphs. Neighborhood children would come to his door and ask if he could come out and play – even those outside of his family knew that this man was life-giving and longed to be in his presence. And thus, the standard was set for the next generation.

My dad and my uncle are both loving, involved, attentive fathers who take obvious delight in their children. They are extending a legacy and demonstrating to their own daughters that their love is not conditioned upon achievement, or ability, or even some ill-defined, unreachable standard. It is rooted in an unchanging identity as daughter, and that is enough.

In a world where 41 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, and where more than a quarter of all children live with just one parent, it is no insignificant matter to have grown up with a father in my home, let alone one who is married to my mother. But to have a man who goes further and chooses to love, to delight…that is a rare gift that deserves to be celebrated, even into the next generation.

dad

We’ve long ago given up the idea that marriage should be a prerequisite to pregnancy or that single motherhood is anything short of virtuous. Social scientists, meanwhile, have devoted considerable energy toward proving that fathers aren’t necessary, despite voluminous research demonstrating that fatherless children suffer a host of pathologies. Though some children do splendidly with just a mother or just a father or some other variation, the overwhelming evidence confirms what we know in our hearts: Fathers are kind of nice to have around. – Kathleen Parker, Washington Post, 6/20/10

Nearly all of my early childhood memories are of my father: My sister and I huddled near the lone air conditioning unit at the top of our stairs, listening to my dad read; My dad keeping me up at night when he was supposed to be praying with me and tucking me into bed; movie-trilogy marathons on weekends mom was away; Dad attempting to do my hair on Sunday mornings when mom was already at church; teaching me to ride a bike or to play basketball.

As I got older, sometimes to my embarrassment, my dad was always around. In middle school, I think he came to all but one of my volleyball games. (note: middle school girls volleyball is not an exciting sport. he was not there because of the riveting competition) He and my mom chaperoned a school dance. (note: they danced. completely unacceptable) He went with me on a 7th grade science field trip. All of this while working. A lot.

In high school, my parents were at every one of our football games, rain or shine, to see my sister and I perform at halftime. They didn’t miss a single band, orchestra or choir concert and usually showed up to all three nights to see us perform in the musical. They dropped us off and picked us up from Young Life camp, mission trips, and countless numbers of practices. They made fools of themselves at senior parents night, acting out the roles that we had filled in high school.

In college, my parents came to visit – getting to know the people in my life was genuinely important to them. Not to invade my life or cramp my freedom, but to truly know and love those who knew and loved me. When they visited, they spent time with me, but they also always spent time with the people in my life.

One summer during college, I interned at a homeless shelter for women and children in Cleveland. As part of the internship, I also lived in the shelter with the women, allowing me to enter into their lives more fully. One Friday, we were talking about our weekend plans and I mentioned that I was excited to go to the movies with my dad. The women around the table from me – all of them – remarked at how nice that was and asked how long it was since I had last seen him. I looked at them a little funny and told them that it hadn’t even been a week; that I saw him whenever I was home. The women – all of them – had grown up without their fathers; and in several cases never having met their fathers. The idea that spending time with your dad was a rare and monumental event had never even crossed my mind. My dad was just always there.

Now I know my dad’s not perfect. In fact, I could probably give you a fairly comprehensive list of his flaws. But in a society that increasingly lets men end their responsibility of fatherhood as soon as the child is born, my dad is truly exceptional. I want to honor a culture that encourages men to get back involved in the lives of their children; that holds them to standards higher than occasional phone calls and birthday cards. I want to see my generation take the role of parent as their highest calling and to set aside all other ambitions to forge relationships with the family we create. I believe that my generation will be those that reverse this trend. We will be those who stand up for injustice; who refuse to walk away when times are difficult; who reject the lie that we are sufficient on our own.

And let it begin with me.

Wild Thing

It is no secret that my family are huge fans of children’s literature. These books are routinely exchanged as gifts, still read aloud  at family functions, and discussed around the dinner table.

We are correspondingly skeptical of film adaptations of our beloved books. So I was cautiously optimistic as I approached the new Where the Wild Things Are film.

The book is now nearly a half-century old. It contains just 10 sentences and glorious illustrations. A tough battle for a screenwriter.

To be fair, the film took some liberties. For example, I was not expecting the Wild Things to speak. I’m not sure why. In the book, it seemed like Max understood them simply because they were both “wild”. Language wasn’t necessary. But, it’s hard to make a silent movie popular these days, so the Wild Things had voices. I will allow it.

I was also not expecting the film to handle issues deeper than the surface of the book. But here, I was pleasantly surprised. It is subtle, but throughout the film, the characters grapple with the idea of fatherlessness, broken homes, and ones we love leaving us. I was struck again, by the film’s treatment of the subject, how impactful fathers are in the lives of young boys. Boys are supposed to be wild. They need men to encourage them in this in healthy, productive way; not stifling it and creating a society of empty, well-behaved men.

Go see the film with thoughtful people. Go to a coffee shop afterwards and talk honestly about your impressions of the film. Then, call me and tell me about them.

I would also recommend this article by RELEVANT magazine. It’s a thoughtful review of some of the more nuanced themes in the book.