“What do you want for your birthday?” my wife asked. I knew if I didn’t tell her something, I’d forgo any say in my 44th birthday present, so instinctively I looked at my list titled “things to get one day.” I noted the cigar humidor I’ve had my eye on, a rustic wood American flag for my office, and some tactical items. All things that would bring me joy, but only me.
Inspired by some recent conversations I’ve had around fatherhood, I decided I’d be most fulfilled on my birthday by seeing my kids happy, so I planned a day where each one would get a wish -- any outlandish wish -- and I’d make it come true.
I gave them all 24-hour advance notice, with the only parameter being they couldn’t ask me to purchase something.
Here’s how that played out with Sam (8 years old), Elizabeth (6), Caleb (4), Max (2), and my takeaways from the process.
Sam’s wish was to stay up with me as long as he wanted one night. We chose a day that coincided with a baseball game that he had, then settled in on the couch for a movie night. We’ve been watching the series Band of Brothers together, and this was the perfect night to continue.
Recently, we had talked about the importance of keeping our word. For Sam, it was his commitment to his coach and teammates to show up and play his best; and similarly, I gave Sam my word that we’d stay up late, and I did, even though I’d rather have turned in early after a long call shift.
He finally blinked around 11:30PM, so we shared our special handshake, and finally collapsed. It was a good day.
ELIZABETH (we call her Eddie)
Eddie’s wish was to have a tea party with me. I made special little sandwich wedges surrounding a mound of fresh blueberries, and even cut up a protein bar for myself. I used my wife’s grandmother’s heirloom china and brewed a batch of tea.
Eddie was still at Grandma’s house from her sleepover, so I went to pick her up wearing a shirt and tie. She was so excited when I knocked on the door and announced that I was there to pick her up for our date. We held hands walking back to our house, and her eyes beamed when she saw the setup, which included a kiddie table, tablecloth, and decorations. She exclaimed over and over again how this was her favorite day ever, and I listened intently to her stories -- stories that I had heard several times in the past, but I now found myself reflecting on how sometimes I only just half-listened to them. I treated her like a lady, the same way I would want her prom date to treat her in 12 years.
My main takeaway from this was how I want her to be able to recognize a true gentleman when she meets one, and be a strong enough woman to accept and appreciate a masculine man.
Caleb knew right away what he wanted: “Dad! Dad! Dad! I want to do the thing where you have a beer, and maybe a soda, and guys, and chairs…” and on and on he rambled. A few clarifying exchanges, and I realized he wanted to go to happy hour.
The next day Caleb woke up, excitedly made his own breakfast, and was dressed and ready to go by 8am! I had a little chat with him that work comes before play, so I’d love his help in some work before we went off for play (or, happy hour). He changed into work boots, and we tackled the day’s chores: working on the chicken coop, filling the water softener, taking a trip to the hardware and grocery store, and finally going to our local watering hole.
Later that day, he was thrilled to sit at the bar on a tall stool and order his juice and burger, and he beamed from ear to ear when he clanked my beer and exclaimed “cheers” with his mispronounced ‘R’.
It’s remarkable how kids, no matter their age, are always listening, absorbing, and shaping their interests based on what they see and hear. They want to emulate Dad in every way possible, and it motivates me to hold myself accountable and be better every day.
And then we get to Max, our 2.5-year-old boy. He predictably growled and wanted to be a dinosaur, and lucky for me, Halloween was fast approaching, so he
was the Baby Dinosaur, and I was the Daddy Dinosaur. We ran, jumped, chased, and bounced all over the place, and I felt like a kid again.
While this was my birthday wish, this tradition could also fit right into a parent’s holiday wish. Perhaps one of the eight nights of Hanukkah or twelve days of Christmas will be the time for you to give yourself this priceless gift. This project had a lasting impact on my kids, because for that moment, they were the only one (and only thing) that mattered to me. I was both reminded of the importance of fathers in children’s lives, as well as the humble joy of being blessed and chosen to have the kids that I do.
In a nutshell, intentional parenting to me means making the time. What we do with that time looks different for each parent and child, but if we can slow down and spend even a few minutes a day with them, we’ll see that aside from the significance of just being present, there’s usually a teaching point or lesson to impart.
I will add that it’s never too late. My father started being intentional in my late 20s, and I remember that more than the first two decades. Going forward, I will endeavor to make each day count, and be cognizant of the impact I have on my children.
This tradition will be a staple in the Wander household for years to come!