Dad, Do You Want to Play?

August 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Joe Kita Blogs

by Joe Kita

You’ll be getting this question a lot. Here’s how to respond.

For my son’s second birthday, I bought him Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots. In case you never lusted after this game as a child, it features two brawny machine-men inside a miniature boxing ring. Each player uses hand controls to maneuver his robot while thumbing buttons to throw left and right uppercuts. When you hit your opponent’s jaw in just the right place, there’s a satisfying “Eeeyyyaaawww” sound as his head springs up. This is called “knocking his block off.”

It’s that simple. It’s that thrilling.

Indeed, I am so excited by this gift I’m barely able to resist helping my son unwrap it. “It’s Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots!” I scream, since he obviously doesn’t know what it is. But the box is big and colorful, and that’s exciting enough. While he smacks the tray of his high chair in delight, I begin assembly.

“Don’t you think he’s a little young for that?” asks my wife.

“Oh no, dear,” I reply, weaving the ring ropes through the plastic turnbuckles. “He’s going to love it. It’s a classic! I always wanted one when I was a kid.”

“But it’s so violent. Suppose he tries knocking somebody’s block off at day care?”

“Aw come on. It’s harmless. Here, I’ll show you.”

And with that, I place the game reverently between my son and me. He leans forward attentively as I demonstrate how to throw punches and glide around the ring. Then we touch gloves, I yell “Ding! Ding!” and the fighting commences.

For a while, it’s mayhem. He comes out of his corner flailing and squealing. I cover up. Then, as his little thumbs tire, I respond with a flurry of brutal rights. One finally hits home, and his block gets knocked off. Eeeyyyaaawww! I jab the air in jubilation, and my son starts crying.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Look, we can pop the robot’s head right back on. See?”

After he realizes that defeat is temporary, he calms down, we regroup in our respective corners, and we emerge to battle again—and again.

Since then, as my son has grown, I’ve had similar bouts of joy with radio-controlled cars, Nerf guns, model trains, Creepy Crawlers, and whole battalions of little green army men. I used to love wandering the aisles at Toys ‘R’ Us with a shopping cart, throwing in all those things I begged for as a kid but my parents refused to buy.

But even more delightful than the purchasing was the playing: sitting Indian-style on the floor with my son, surrounded by 750 individual pieces from a giant Lego pirate ship, breath heavy with concentration, time suspended. I was never happier, never more relaxed, than when I finally pushed aside the work in my day and agreed to play.

Why was that?
I think part of the reason is because play is instinctual. You see it in cubs; you see it in kids. Give a child an interesting object, and it follows as naturally as giggles from a tickle. It is how we learn, how we explore, how we first open our minds. And when we stumble across it as adults, part of us remembers and prepares to grow again.

Another reason is that play provides balance. It’s a built-in buffer to stress, a sort of conscious version of sleep. Think about it. What rest does passively for us at night, play achieves actively for us during the day. It’s restorative. It’s refreshing. It’s another subtle dimension of life from which we awaken slightly better. For proof, watch children coloring, or listen to the happy hum of a schoolyard at recess. The delight in the moment is utter and pure. Play is child’s meditation, a toddler’s trance, the most-tender zen.

But adults don’t appreciate this. Most times, we are too busy to play, too mature to get down on the floor. When our children implore us, we give in grudgingly and then remain distracted by the hive of priorities in our lives. We place such little value on play that we rarely immerse ourselves in it guiltlessly.

The late writer Wilfrid Sheed told me this when asked for the secret to happiness: “Develop something outside of yourself,” he said, “a burning interest in Napoleon or the Civil War or anything that inspires the same kind of passion that kids have with ease but adults somehow forget about. I’ve never known an unhappy person with a stamp collection.”

He was referring, of course, to play. The point being that the thrill of getting a new bike is no less grand at 75 than it is at 5. It still feels just as good now to swing a bat, throw a Frisbee, run fast, or do a waterhole cannonball as it did then. It has to do with a willingness to call time out for recess and then be unafraid to do something spontaneous.

I found the Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots the other day, deep in the toy closet, long since packed away. I started to get wistful, remembering my son’s second birthday and how much fun we had. I started to wish for good old times like that when life was innocent, uncomplicated, and free. And then I stopped myself, realizing that it still is. I opened the box, wove the ring ropes through the plastic turnbuckles, and then set off to find my 14-year-old boy—the one in my house and the one still inside me.

Excerpted from The Father’s Guide to the Meaning of Life by Joe Kita. To read more about this book and order a copy, click here.

The Seven Essential Traits of a Father

August 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Joe Kita Blogs

by Joe Kita

How many do you have?

Children would have you be perfect. In that sense, every parent is bound to some level of failure. But if you have the following attributes, you will be as good as any father can be:

Knowledgeable: A child’s inclination is to question the world, and a father’s duty is to supply as many answers as he can. This doesn’t necessarily take a high degree of intelligence. In fact, you can usually do a pretty good job with basic common sense. The important thing to remember is that even if you don’t know the explanation, your kid thinks you do. Don’t let him down. There’s no compliment that’s greater.

Patient: When I was a boy and I did something wrong, I used to run to my father’s closet and tie knots in all this belts. That way, when he came home and reached for one, it would take a while to undo. And in that time, his anger would subside, and he’d begin thinking rationally again. A father needs to knot his own belts. He needs patience so he’ll hesitate before reprimanding, pause before judging, and wait until the both of you are good and ready.

Curious: Few things unite a dad and a child more than mutual wonder and the urge to explore. When you get down on your hands and knees, first in amazement at something you see and then in a determined search to unearth a clue, you are becoming your child’s equal. It is by learning that we grow wise and also young. Kids are forever asking, “Why?” Good fathers do, too.

Generous: Be generous with your time, your money, your possessions, your love, your soul. If you aren’t prepared to completely share every facet of your life and, most important, yourself, then you aren’t ready to be a father. Now that my kids are getting older, my life is finally starting to come back. I can call it my life again whereas for the last decade or so it’s been ours.

Imperfect: The best dads are the ones who aren’t afraid to screw up in front of their kids. They’re the ones who drop an occasional fly ball and laugh, who burn a meal and then treat everyone to dinner, who call a repairman to fix what they couldn’t, who finish second (or last) with no regrets. These guys make such good fathers because they’re so real. If you’re not perfect, your children will never feel they have to be.

Respectful: Have respect for three things: your body, your spouse, and God. Keeping yourself in good shape teaches your children self-esteem. Loving their mother unconditionally shows them that they should too. And humbling yourself before a Higher Power lets them know there will always be something bigger than them.

Loyal: No matter how fed up I got with my old man, I knew there was one thing I could count on. He’d always be there to pick me up, just like he said he would, initially by hand then by car and, much later in life, with a good word or a few bucks. I never realized how much that support meant until he died. Your children need to know that your love remains no matter what. It’ll never be late; it’ll never leave early. You are the one person they can depend on.

Excerpted from The Father’s Guide to the Meaning of Life by Joe Kita. To order a copy, click here.

One Thing I Learned from My Old Man

August 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Joe Kita Blogs

by Joe Kita

And one thing I tried to teach my kids.

My father never really liked fishing. In fact, he didn’t even like fish, except breaded flounder once in a while on Fridays during Lent. Nevertheless, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. on summer weekends when I was a boy to take me fishing. Sometimes he’d take a whole week off from work and we’d drive 12 hours to Canada, where the lunkers lived. He even bought an old john boat so we could finally reach where I was always trying to cast. For a man who never learned to swim, that must have been a titanic task.

We fished all over eastern Pennsylvania for many years but, come to think of it, I don’t remember my father ever catching much of anything. He’d sit in the back of the boat in his white T-shirt and ball cap, working the motor or the oars so I could get the best cast. He liked to drink 16-ounce cans of Budweiser because, for some unknown reason, it doesn’t make you pee as much as other brands, and that was important on a boat as small as ours. He also liked eating salami sandwiches on a soft roll with a fresh cucumber from his garden. You wouldn’t think it, but there is no better breakfast on a hot August morning.
Although we must have spent months together in that boat, I can’t remember having one noteworthy conversation about anything. You’d think that if a father weren’t fishing for fish, then maybe he’d be baiting his son. But no, he’d just sit there, his line spiraling loosely into the water, the net always within easy grasp in case I hooked the big one.

When I became a teenager, I started thinking he was stupid and uninspired. And although I loved fishing more than anything in life, I was often glad we were floating far out on a lake, where no one could see his ineptitude or my embarrassment.

My father never really enjoyed playing ball, either. In fact, as my pitching arm got stronger and curveball broke sharper, he became visibly intimidated during our games of backyard catch. Sometimes he wouldn’t even try to get in front of the pitch, opting instead to let it bore to a stop in the thick bushes behind him. Nonetheless, most nights after supper, he’d ask if I felt like throwing. He’d call imaginary balls and strikes until the twilight made it difficult for him to see, yet never once was he the first to say, “Let’s quit.” He even bought a catcher’s mitt so he could be a more realistic target. And he volunteered as an assistant coach for all my youth teams. For a man who had never played sports as a boy and knew little of the rules, that was a gutsy play.

My father came to all my games, even when I was in high school and he had to leave work early. He kept my batting average, ERA, and other stats in a notebook and updated them with an auditor’s precision. Yet when I look back now, I realize that he never truly loved the game itself. For him, there was no romance in the feel of fresh-cut infield grass, no seductive quality to the smell of Neat’s foot oil rubbed into a new glove. He didn’t have a favorite pro team, or one article of clothing with a star player’s name on the back. He preferred the stock market report to the box scores and leaving early ahead of traffic to awaiting a possible Phils’ rally in the bottom of the ninth.

It wasn’t until many years later when I had children of my own and my father was no longer around to fish or play catch with me that I finally made sense of it all. Of course he didn’t love fishing; he loved how excited and happy fishing made me. And of course he didn’t love the game; he loved me in the game. And that was enough. When you’re alone with your son in a Canadian dawn and he’s concentrating on dropping his best lure next to a promising stump, it doesn’t matter if you are, too. When you’re out back with your boy on a summer evening and he’s trying to throw nine consecutive strikes to fan an imaginary side, it doesn’t matter if you’re capable of doing that, too. In fact, it’s almost better if you’re not, because otherwise you’d miss these magic moments.

My father was indifferent about fishing and baseball and many other things he did with me. But he was smart enough to recognize that the activity connected us, and that it was a way to promote confidence, enthusiasm, and drive without ever having to lecture me on those topics. By first giving me the opportunity to sample the things I was curious about and then supporting me unconditionally while I pursued them, he helped me discover for myself the power of passion. And lest you conclude that my father was passionless, then let me volunteer this: After much consideration, I think his passion, the thing that brought him the greatest joy in life, was simply watching me be passionate. And I believe that’s true for every father.

My young son and daughter are always saying, “Watch me.” Whether they’re coloring, playing, or creating, they seem to have an innate urge to be observed. Most times, though, I don’t feel like looking. For some reason, I’m always more willing to watch for trouble than I am to look for delight. That is, until I remember my father sitting in that boat or standing in the first-base coach’s box. I realize then that I don’t have to be as enthusiastic as they are; it’s enough for me just to be there. And if I can’t find enjoyment in the activity itself, then I can most certainly derive pleasure from their doing it themselves.

It’s easy to do what I want when I’m with my kids and feel good about it afterwards. It’s much more difficult, however, to do what they want and feel equally satisfied. I believe now that my father was perhaps the greatest fisherman and ballplayer of all time, not because he was very good at either one but because he had the patience and wisdom to raise someone who was.
Excerpted from Wisdom of Our Fathers by Joe Kita. To read more about this book and order a copy, click here.