A friend and former student of mine (and currently youth pastor extraordinaire), recently suggested that I offer up a few nuggets of wisdom–or at least advice– as he anticipates the birth of his first child in a few weeks. He was probably joking, but I decided to take him up on it anyway. The caveat is that I’m still quite new at this whole fatherhood thing myself. Plus, since I’m not particularly wise, much of this will be pretty basic and probably all of it is derived from someone or somewhere else (most of what I know about parenting I learned from my own wonderful parents and from my fantastic wife–who is truly wise). The second caveat is that I realize every situation and every child is different. But anyway: my friend, here are some thoughts for you.
Here we go:
1. Get a copy (book or DVD–we watched the DVD) of The Happiest Baby on the Block and read/watch it as soon as possible. This is very important: Do this, and you just may save your sanity. By following this system, the vacuum cleaner became our favorite household appliance (but not for its intended use). Your highest priority here is to aster the swaddle technique. At this stage in your life, it’s vastly more important than any Greek or Hebrew you learned in seminary.
2. Let your child lead you in parenting him. That sounds counter-intuitive, I don’t mean that in the cheesy “be their friend, not their authority figure” sort of way. I’m suggesting that you pay close attention to who he is (and who he is becoming) as you learn to parent him. You cannot force a kid to be something he’s not, to respond in ways that you expect him to respond, or to conform to a system that you think will be absolutely right. In other words, to use theology-speak here, you have to do some contextual parenting. You learn what the ‘context’ is as it’s developing before your eyes. Of course, you also have powerful influence in who he will become (by the way, my friend told me it’s a boy, thus the consistent “he” pronoun).
3. In that vein, don’t take your influence lightly. They watch you closely and emulate you (and yes, they will repeat–eventually–the words that come out of your mouth). In short, he wants you to be his hero and is anticipating that you will become just that. The set-up is all there: it’s a softball pitch. So take that opportunity very seriously. And remember that all real heroes are flawed.
4. Be very, very patient. If you are not already patient, try to become that. You have to. Everything takes more time, more energy, more withholding of the desire to yell, or swear, or just be generally irritable. With a crying, screaming infant, just remember: there is a reason they’re screaming. They aren’t trying to piss you off. Your job is to be patient and try to figure out the reason. Or to be patient and just hold him while he figures it out.
5. With your spouse: work with her, not against her. Marriage is more complicated with a baby. More fun, that’s true. But also more complicated. There will be times when you find yourselves competing against each other, rather than on the same team, against the same obstacles and trials. Get on the same side — and quickly. It can feel like a subtle shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.
6. Become a master diaper changer. Oh yeah, and watch out for the occasional stream.
7. When your son wants nothing you do with you–and only needs your wife–don’t take it personally. Your times will come. Trust me. And when it does, there’s nothing like it in the world.
8. You can never give too much affection or show too much love. This time goes by awfully fast. Make the most of every snuggle time and book reading. Soak it in.
9. Children are naturally religious. Cognitive psychologists tell us this. I take it as an empirical sign that we were created for a relationship with God. Children are natural at prayer, at belief, at faith and at wonder. Let your child bring you back to a childlike faith–even if just from time to time.
10. As a colleague once advised me: “Sleep when he sleeps, or you’ll cry when he cries.”
Finally, remember to filter everything through the grid of the gospel that you know and love. It’s all grace. Everything is grace: from first to last, from top to bottom.