Not too long ago, I joined a small group of dads for some post-bedtime drinks at a local pub. We chatted about podcasts. We chatted about sportsball. And after a couple of drinks, the conversation shifted to talk about our kids.
As a father of daughters who are now ten and seven, I discovered I was the parent around the table with the oldest kids. No longer was I just another private in the trenches of baby-raising. I was the grizzled sergeant with battle scars so old I’d forgotten when I got them.
There’s so much about being a parent in those early years I don’t have to care about anymore. The things that used to occupy so much of my time and attention just a few years ago don’t cross my mind in the slightest.
An obvious example is diapers; I’m years past having to worry about diapers. Time was, I’d have to bring a bag with me everywhere I went to deal with any excremental contingency, but now the only human’s bowel movements I have to consider are my own. If my daughters want to have an entire carton of blueberries for lunch, that’s on them.
With the dads at the pub, I started sharing stories about how much better it got as my kids got older, like sending my kids outside to play. If a 3-year-old has inexhaustible outside energy, you have to go outside with her so she doesn’t try to eat a tree, stick ants in her eyes, or get abducted by mythical creatures. She needs you there and you need to be there.
Now, if the girls are rowdy, we just send them outside where they’re generally happy to go. Sometimes I’ll go out with them, but other times, I’ll stay inside and read a book, or help cook dinner, or do the dishes. They’re happy, and I get a head start on all the solo chores and activities I need to finish to maximize our time together later.
The girls have even started doing some of the chores themselves. When children are born in The Sims – a computer game where you help guide the everyday lives of simulated humans – they spend seventy-two game hours as babies before they start helping out with the chores. It moves dramatically slower with real-life children, but I’m amazed at what the girls can do now on their own.
My daughters bathe themselves. They can make themselves a meal. They can clean up after themselves. They dress themselves and can do their own laundry. They can be told to “go to bed” and they do. They don’t always do these things; they’re kids. But they can – and often do.
It used to be that my wife and I had to do everything for our daughters. Then, they started doing things on their own. Now, they’re starting to do things for us.
My daughters like doing chores for the family. They will volunteer to sweep the floor, help with the dishes, or take out the trash. They seem to have figured out that the sooner, say, the evening chores are finished, the sooner their dad will have undivided time to play a game or read to them.
You know what else my daughters have been doing for me lately? They’ve been making me sandwiches. Most days I take a brown bag lunch to work, and most days that lunch includes a sandwich. My daughters have been taking turns making me sandwiches so I can get off to work more easily. On peanut butter and jelly days, my older daughter asks if she can surprise me with the flavor of jam.
On meat sandwich days, it’s the 7-year-old’s turn. I’ve watched her develop her craft. She takes a piece of bread, then a piece of cheese, then a piece of roast beef, then a piece of cheese, and then the other piece of bread. No one taught her this sandwich symmetry technique; she devised it on her own. She’s a sandwich engineer, and every time I watch her, I’m astonished at how this human went from not being able to support the weight of her own head to designing sandwich schematics.
The girls aren’t little chore robots. They don’t always do all the chores available all the time, and neither do I. Sometimes, I’ve also been known to leave a dish in the sink and go play on my iPad. It’s not about how to be 100 percent compliant with a chore chart, but to learn how to take care of yourself and how to be a caring member of a family.
Looking back at pictures of my daughters when they were little, I see that their personalities have always been there – waiting for time and experience to bring them out in fuller form. If ten years in, it’s gotten this much better, what will the next ten look like? I say this out loud to my friends. If they can’t fathom how their kids will ever cross the street by themselves, what’s in store for me that I can’t fathom?
I know I haven’t experienced parenting teenagers yet. I know that’s going to come with its own challenges and a whole new list of things my daughters will not only be able to do on their own, but will insist that they do. They won’t always want to make me sandwiches. They won’t always reach up for my hand to cross the street.
But I wouldn’t trade the time spent for anything. I loved my daughters on their first day in the world, I loved them as infants and toddlers, and I love them at seven and ten. I’m going to love them as teenagers, and I cannot wait to see what type of adults they turn out to be. I love showing them the world, but what I’m really waiting for is to have them show the world back to me.