Parenting can be like a lot of modern video games. It does not come packaged with any instructions, just a list of credits telling you who made what. The expectation is that you figure it out as you go along. You receive skill points (XP) for achievements, some parts are more challenging than others, and there is little motivation to go back and replay levels you previously conquered. You can get by with the basics, but to truly experience raising a child or playing a game, you have to find all of the hidden collectibles, earn each of the trophies, and unlock every upgrade. It can be expensive. Downloadable content (school clothes) and microtransactions (Christmas presents) greatly improve satisfaction; on their own they don't seem costly, but after a while the prices add up and look shameful in retrospect.
Did I just compare my kids to a $60 polycarbonate plastic disc filled with graphical and audio programming designed for digital entertainment? Maybe. It is a tenuous simile. However, as a mostly former gamer, I have slogged through some games with steep learning curves. I have hit the start button to dive into stories where the studios that created it expect the end user to know what they are doing with minimal explanation or instruction. This button jumps, that button interacts with objects, and the trigger uses your weapon. Good luck. You're on your own for IRL food, sleep, and potty breaks.
Yet even the most difficult game I have ever played is simple compared to the rigors of parenthood. As a trade off, being a dad is infinitely more rewarding than beating the final boss or reaching the end of the last world in any video game. At least, it is if you do it right.
The biggest challenge in parenting is wondering if your strategy is working. I think much of being a parent is composed of not knowing what you are doing while hoping for the best. Ideally, we reach out to some older/wiser types who have been there and done that. We listen to the advice of professionals who might know more than we do about areas of child rearing: teachers, pastors, counselors, therapists, our own parents. We read books and magazine articles. We try new things and go through the full process of failure and revision.
We do what we can with the tools we have been given. At the end of the day, we want greatness for the miniature humans entrusted into our care all with the intent of turning them into the closest semblance of a decent and productive adult before releasing them upon an unsuspecting world. We try. We try hard. Unfortunately, the fruits of our labor are rarely evident.
Every now and then, there are rewards. Achievements unlocked. It could be a friend telling you "You're a good dad." Or a teacher telling you "Your kid is amazing." And then there are moments you realize that your kids are turning out to be better than you ever anticipated.
Last Thursday, we were at the grocery store restocking our diminished supply of perishables. In other words, my kids ate all of the fruits and veggies and we needed more. While wandering through the produce section, we procured more bananas, strawberries, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, and grapes - all of the organic matter I know my kids will eat without prompting or hesitation. Somewhere between the plantains and the melons, Christian shared an observation.
"It's a shame." he said.
"What is?" I asked.
"All of this food. And so much of it is going to go to waste. I mean, there are homeless people who don't have anywhere they could go to get a meal."
After that explanation, Christian spent the next ten minutes detailing how unsold soon-to-expire groceries should go to food banks and homeless shelters and benefit those who need it most. This from a kid who aspires to be a comedian and novelist when he grows up.
Not to be out done, his younger brother demonstrated his own variation of kindness and generosity.
After church Sunday morning, our kids’ ministry director pulled me aside and said she needed to brag on J. Of course, she asked him if she could embarrass him by telling me a story. JJ granted her permission.
She explained how he already knew the activity that they were doing because he had done it before. And it would have been alright if he did it all over again. Instead, he decided to assist other kids that were struggling making their craft. He got up without being asked to do so and started helping the others in his age group. "Here, let me show you how to do it." After telling me how he did such a awesome job, she looked at JJ and asked him if he could do that again during the next service. He smiled big and nodded his head. Of course he would.
Moments like these make the rougher moments of parenthood worth it. It lets me know I am doing something right. But to be honest, I have no idea what that something is. I do not have any sage advice for other floundering parents out there. There is no formula that I can package and sell for other dads to replicate the amazing things my kids do. Realistically, it is a guessing game, not knowing if it works, and hoping for the best. In twenty years, if my kids are still trying to solve the world’s problems and seeking opportunity to help those in need, I will consider my job a smashing success.