Columns 2007


A friend who was visiting me noticed that some housing improvements happening next door were spilling over slightly onto my property.  It was nothing that wouldn’t be removed when the work was done. But still, my friend felt that I should say something. I just smiled.

When this project first started, I watched the initial efforts from my office window. One day, my neighbor was using a loader to prepare the ground. His young son came out to watch, fascinated by the loud noise, big tires and giant scoop.  He stood next to the cab of the machine and held his arms up to his dad. Dad reached down and pulled him into the driver’s seat. Together they moved some dirt.  The look on that boy’s face was just amazing. 

I watched this scene and found myself wishing that just once some of the kids I work with in state custody could have an experience like that with their dad. What a difference it could make. Instead, the kids I work with have memories that involve locked doors, thrown lamps, bruised babies, beaten mothers…well, you get the idea.

My dad was very much an Italian of the fifties. That meant that mom raised the kids and dad earned the money.  My father never got down on the floor and played jacks with me. And I think my brother would have had a coronary if my father had ever shown up in the schoolyard to shoot hoops with him. No, my dad was the guy in the funny apron grilling food for a summer Sunday’s picnic. He was the guy sitting in the chair after dinner pretending he wasn’t snoring while mom made us all keep quiet so we didn’t wake him from his after dinner nap. He was the headless body behind the enormous camera recording yet another holiday at Aunt Ida’s.

But there was never any doubt in my mind that he was a central person in our family.  While I never remember my dad taking a bike ride with me, I do remember that he never missed a school performance, graduation, birthday or holiday, even if it meant ripping off his butcher’s apron to run to the school next door and then run back to finish his work. He led by example and his example was stunning in its simplicity. He was a decent, honorable and honest man who treated people with kindness, who went to church every day of his life and who did his best to make sure his children were well behaved, educated and good people.  My mother may have had the lead role, but my father’s presence was of immeasurable importance.

The value of a father’s influence is very evident in the damage sustained by many of the kids with whom I work. Just as my father never actually told me that being kind was a good thing, it was something I learned from the way he lived his life, kids in homes where dad treats mom like dirt are apt to grow up and treat mom the same way. Even worse, boys intuitively assume that the way their dad treats their mom is the way women deserve to be treated. And the daughters who observe this as they grow often assume they deserve no better.

Are these children often angry at their dads for the violence and turmoil in their lives? You bet they are. Those feelings are close to the surface and often expressed with some energy.  But the feelings we really need to worry about are the unexpressed feelings that this is the way life is lived and the way we can treat others and deserve to be treated ourselves.

Make no mistake about it. Dads are critical in family life.  Their influence is felt throughout their children’s lives whether for good or for bad.  They are an integral part of their children’s growing and learning whether they realize what they are teaching them or not. There are some fathers who should stay continents away from their kids if there is any hope that the children will grow up with a modicum of self-respect and mental health. There are others who lift their sons up into the driver’s seat next to them and show them how a man makes a home for his family.

As for my neighbor and his renovation project, I know he’s eventually remove the dirt. Just like I know that when his sons grow up, they’ll know what it means to be a real man.