Happy Father’s Day to all the amazing fathers out there!
One day, hanging out with my oldest son, who is 9, and his friends, I overheard him say, “My dad stinks!” He was only talking about my ability to play Stratego, and he happened to be right: Although I played this game for years as a kid, he beats me—OK, slaughters me—every time. On the other hand…“my dad stinks”?! That was the moment I realized that things had changed for good.
That’s not what he used to say. I remember going with him on a kindergarten field trip years ago, and listening in on a heated debate he was having with a friend about which of their dads was stronger. The debate was ridiculous both because of what they imagined we could do—pushing an apartment building down the street, for example—and because of the sheer nonsense of comparing me with his friend’s dad, who is actually built like an apartment building. As I laughed and told my son that day that the other father was definitely stronger, he looked at me as if I had told him Superman was afraid of the dark.
For a dad, it’s easy to be a superhero to your kids when they’re little. They think you’re the greatest, and you can’t do a thing to convince them otherwise. You hoist them up on your shoulders so they can touch the ceiling, you take them out for breakfast and let them order what they want, and they think everything you say is hilarious. I used to be able to keep my oldest son laughing for an entire afternoon by tossing him on my bed, pulling his arms out to his side, yelling “Clear!” and tickling him on the chest as if my hands were defibrillator paddles.
That was back in the days when my work-from-home schedule allowed me to be around the house more. My wife has always had a more demanding and timeconsuming job than I, and has always been happy for me to do a larger share of child care. And she, like many moms, is less interested in being the kids’ hero and more interested in getting them to eat their broccoli and brush their teeth. The kids love us equally, but they know the difference.
As the kids have gotten older, being a hero has become more of a challenge for me. You can’t put them on your shoulders anymore, they start to demand privacy in their bedrooms (and the kitchen, and the living room), and those same old jokes are a lot less hilarious. These days, when I try to amuse my 7-year-old daughter with a silly song or dance step, my little “Sweeto” (who used to wake up every morning, climb onto my lap with open arms and say, “I need you!”) is likely to take one withering look at me, say, “You’re not funny!” and return to her Phineas and Ferb episode.
As a non-superpowered human, I envy Clark Kent for many things: his great job at the Daily Planet (especially in this market), his Fortress of Solitude (the ultimate man cave) and, of course, his X-ray vision. But I also envy him because he’s able to save the world as Superman, then put on his glasses, comb back his hair, and go back to work to listen in while everyone talks about how awesome he is. As a dad, you get that less often as you become less of a hero to your kids and more of an obstacle standing between them and their video games.
I used to think that having the kids adore me was one of the keys to fatherhood, but over time I’ve learned that we dads keep doing the things we do for our kids because we know we’re being heroic in our own way, even if they don’t. And because we love them. So I let all three of them climb onto my back to go sledding, even though it hurts—a ton. I add my daughter’s favorite songs to my iPhone so she can hear them in the car, even while knowing how much abuse I’d get if my coworkers ever saw how many High School Musical tunes I have on it. And I take them swimming, even though chlorine is my kryptonite, because I know they should learn how to swim.
Maybe, as our relationships with our kids shift, our heroic model needs to shift too. Maybe instead of Superman, who gets all the praise and adulation, we should become more like Spider-Man, who doesn’t. In the comic books, he routinely saves the world from supervillains even though almost no one ever thanks him. But public acclaim or not, Peter Parker sleeps well every night, even when his girlfriend dumps him, or his professor fires him from his job in the lab because he’s too busy stopping crime. Their gratitude isn’t the point. He knows that when they leave the house each morning, safe and secure and able to pursue their dreams, it’s in part because of him, and because he’d put his life on the line against the Green Goblin in a heartbeat to protect them. He knows he’s a hero—and so do we dads.