It’s easy to know what a Dad should say: Do your homework. Be a good sport. Write your thank you notes. Keep your elbows off the table. Work hard. Be respectful. These are the basic manifestations of the virtues that we cherish as a civilization, and having heard them our whole lives, it’s not difficult to pay lip service to them.
The problem is not what to say (or getting them to hear), it’s whether you embody the lessons yourself, whether Dad’s actions align with his words. Robert Fulghum, the author and minister, captured it well when he said that we shouldn’t worry that our kids never listen, we should worry that they are always watching.
Dad can talk about character, but his choices are always going to speak louder than his words. You tell your kid to be respectful, but how much respect do you show them or other people in the course of a day? You can admonish them for their sportsmanship during a soccer game, but how much does your own pride and selfishness creep out during friendly basketball games in the backyard? You criticize their manners, but how good are yours? Do you not have a pile of unwritten thank you notes in a basket in the guest room?
The point of pointing out this hypocrisy is not—as some lazy parents take it to mean—that you don’t get to tell your kids what to do and that authority doesn’t exist. No, it’s to push you to hold yourself to a higher standard, to make sure that you are paying more than just lip service to these important virtues. As Dads, we have to up our game so that we can be the example our kids need to see. We need to remember that someone is always watching and therefore our best behavior—our best selves—are being demanded.