Bad dad days. We all have them. Sometimes it’s just a nagging feeling: I’m not doing as good a parenting job as I could. Sometimes it’s more specific: I feel guilty because I missed Johnny’s soccer game.
Or: I snapped at Janie.
Or: I put electronic dog collars on the kids to make them behave.
Okay, now you’re thinking, “Dog collars. No one would really do that!” (If, instead, you’re thinking, “Dog collars! Brilliant!” you should probably stop reading this column and immediately turn to Parental Guidance in this fine magazine.)
As it turns out, not only would someone do that, someone – a dad in Oregon – did exactly that. When I read about it, I did what I always do when I come across articles about really bad fathering methods. I saved it in a folder labeled Dadenfreude.
The Germans have a term for the feeling of pleasure we sometimes experience at another person’s misfortune. Schadenfreude. Sometimes it just feels good when a bad thing happens to someone else. We all know the feeling, even if we keep it secret.
Dadenfreude is the same thing, only applied to fathering.
For example, the day I read about the dog-collar dude, I was in the clutches of an intractable parenting problem. Sam, my third grader, cannot grasp why his illegible number formation is related to the low marks he has been receiving on his math homework.
The problem manifests like this: He hands me a math sheet, which he has apparently completed using a cryptograph; I point out the nines that look like fours, the sevens that look like ones, the sixes that look like jelly donuts, and the threes that look like the glyph for the Egyptian sun god. I tell him (for the third time this week!) That he needs to re-do the worksheet, taking care to form his numbers legibly (and preferably using actual, Arabic numerals). He hangs his head and departs in tears.
At which point, I’m thinking, “Bad dad! This is the third time! It’s not working! Find a way to make your point without reducing your child to tears!”
And then, voila! There’s a dad who has been putting shock collars on his kids! Now that’s a bad dad. So what if I’ve just sent my son away in tears over his handwriting? At least I know the difference between Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Benjamin Shock!
And there you go: Dadenfreude at work.
I’ve been a dad for over twelve years now. I have a bookshelf full of parenting books, and I’ve even read some of them. Like you, I’ve gotten most of the dad stuff right, and sometimes I’ve gotten it very wrong. Many days fall somewhere in between, getting little things right and little things wrong along the way. I don’t always have the time to turn to a book or a trusted companion to seek parenting solace. A little Dadenfreude can come in handy at times like that.
Maybe I came down a little too hard on Ben about that little white lie, but look at the dude who circumcised his children with a utility knife.
Yes, I should have played Rummy with Sam instead of reading my email, but here’s a guy who left his toddlers in his car while he went to a strip club.
I should caveat here that Dadenfreude is an occasional indulgence. It’s like breath spray—perfect for a spritz when you need a quick freshen up, but no one would recommend it as the basis for a healthy oral hygiene program.
So, if you find yourself constantly scanning the news pages for parenting train wrecks and your Dadenfreude folder is wrapped in bungee cables to keep it from exploding, you might want to ask yourself some serious questions.
Like: Am I a candidate to wind up in someone else’s Dadenfreude folder?
But, if you are like most dads, in between juggling jobs and kids and relationships, you’re doing your best to be the kind of good dad you’ve read about in those parenting books. If you drop the ball every now and then, and need a little reassurance that you’re doing a good job, go ahead and indulge in a little Dadenfreude. We’ll keep it between us guys.
Ten minutes after Sam retreated in tears, he reappeared in my office, math sheet once again in hand. His eyes were still rimmed with the memory of tears, but there was a hopeful uptick to his mouth. The hieroglyphics had been replaced by fine, careful numerals.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” I shouted, slapping him a high five.
He beamed. The high-five turned into a hug. He flopped happily into my lap, melting against me, as only a contented child will do. As lousy as I had felt about my fathering ten minutes before, I felt suddenly fantastic.
No shock collar required.