Charles Firth: What being a dad means to me

The Chaser's - Charles Firth, shares his top rules for being a dad.

Charles Firth

One of the most gratifying moments of the past eight years happened the other day when the mother of my son’s best friend had an ah-ha moment, and said to me: “It’s possible to overthink parenting, isn’t it?”

Our boys had been climbing up and down this smallish (5 metre) cliff at our local park, and she was freaking out that one of them would fall and break their leg.

I refrained from mentioning how I had, in fact, encouraged my boy to climb the cliff, and that her son’s desire to do the same was probably a direct result of my own son’s goading.

My attitude was that of any mildly irresponsible parent: her house was pretty close-by, we would likely hear if one of them seriously injured themselves. And if we didn’t, well, the wine we were drinking was delicious, so at least we had that.

Her attitude was slightly different.

She’s not generally a nervous woman, or even a control freak, but upon learning of the cliff climbing, she started blasting her eight-year old a long set of dos and don’ts.

Watching the whole process made my body shudder. I mean, who wants to be told anything by their mum (or dad) when they’re in front of a peer? ‘Allow the man some dignity,’ was all I could think.

The list was quite extensive, most fell into the ‘No shit’ category, and the rest totally contradicted other rules (just to ensure that the poor kid would get into trouble, regardless of what he did).

From memory (and my memory tends to suffer from confirmation bias), they were things like “DO play independently like any eight-year-old should”, “DON’T do anything without consulting me”, “DO be friendly and accommodating of other people using the park”, “DON’T get into the back of a white van marked PAEDO-MOBILE”.

Once she’d armed her kid with these extensive rules, the whole park seemed a bit pointless.

I’d pitched the park to my son as being a way for him to show his friend how to climb the cliff, and perhaps even break a limb.

(My son did break a bone in his hand recently and the look of joy on his face when the doctor told him was something I’ll never forget. He was disappointed that it didn’t involve a cast, but he insisted on the not-entirely-necessary bandage that the doctor offered to apply as a kind of consolation prize).

His friend’s mum had made the park such a bureaucratic, rule-based activity, that inevitably the boys were going to come back five minutes later, demanding screen time. And then she’d have to go through a whole new set of rules.

Screw screen time. There was sun in the sky. They should be forced to play outside. That’s my rule.

There is method to my mildly irresponsible parenting madness

In my experience, eight-year-olds have a very black and white sense of morality, and most of them will obey even the most arbitrary of rules. (Never, ever tell an eight-year-old “Break a leg”).

My kid’s best friend, a tall but somewhat nervous character, is a strange little man. In one sense, he is well behaved, in that he is extremely obedient. But this kid also suffered from extremely poor judgement.

Whenever he’s around at our house, he’ll inevitably break a vase by kicking a ball, or ruin a carpet trying to play water balloons inside.

Just yesterday, I shit you not, he aimed a garden hose inside the back door, into the living room. When I yelled at him to stop, he stopped right away, but then lamely exclaimed: “I didn’t”, and walked away.

I think he’d make a good politician.

Point is – his mum’s set of rules is so comprehensive, he has an undeveloped capacity to think for himself, and use his own judgement.

I don’t think his mother is a bad parent. The fact is she’s giving him all these rules because she wants to protect him and be a good mum. A perfect mum even. She doesn’t want to do anything ‘wrong’.

But, there is no right or wrong in being a parent. Or at least, that’s my excuse.

What I love most about being a dad is that it’s all about helping your little man or little woman to find their own way, to test their limits and understand them.

It’s about forging a relationship with another human being, and role modelling for them what being human is like. It’s almost like no one moment matters, because it’s the sum of all the parts – both good and bad.

Let them break a limb. That’s my rule.

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