How to be a lousy dad: a true story

Ten thousand times a day we are presented with choices for what to do. And nine times out of ten, we choose wrongly. This is hardly surprising, for, as Aristotle once sagely said, there are an infinite number of ways of missing the mark, and only one of hitting it.

But that is not the point I wish to make.

The thing I want to say is that somewhere in the past decade, starting with the moment I first acquired a smartphone, it seems that the proportion began to tilt in the wrong direction. Instead of nine times out of ten, it has seemed more like nine and a half times, or nine and three-quarter times out of ten, I choose wrongly. And I have begun to suspect that this isn’t merely coincidental.

An illustration of what I mean:

A few nights ago, I was putting my children to bed. It was about ten past nine, and their bedtime is supposed to be nine. Which is to say, things had already gone awry. But even so, at some point as I was impotently herding hordes of stray children from the living room to the bathroom to their beds, I did what we all do an embarrassing number of times per day: I checked my phone. And unlike the overwhelming majority of times, in which absolutely nothing of the slightest importance has happened, this time, something had happened.

I won’t bother you with the details, which are of little consequence. However, the thing that had happened resulted in a whole lot of buzzing and binging and dinging of my phone, and led (as most things do) to a host of people yelling at one another at Twitter, largely on the subject matter of the relative merit of one another’s continued existence.

But the thing to emphasize is that there was absolutely nothing I could, or was expected to do about any of this. Whether I kept abreast of the notifications and e-mails and tweets or not had no impact on the unfolding of events, and for that reason could just as well have waited for the morning. But the thing is, I was curious. I wanted to see what happened. And as the minutes ticked by, I continued to stare, and scroll, and click. And all the while, my children were not being put to bed.

Not only were they not being put to bed, but I began dimly to be aware that they were behaving in the oddest fashion: rapidly dashing into the room, shouting things at me, and then disappearing and shouting things at one another, and running frantically to various windows in the house and pressing their faces up against the glass and pointing and shouting some more.

All of this motion and shouting made it very difficult for me to focus on my distractions, and so I began to get annoyed. On several occasions I even raised my eyes long enough to sternly order them to get into their beds, in my best, I-really-mean-this dad voice. To no discernible effect. For they, it seems, had decided en masse, in the manner of an anarchic mob, that the thunderstorm raging outside our house, with its torrential downpour that had transformed our street into a furious river, and the sheet lightning crackling across the sky every few seconds, and the thunder that was shaking our house, was of greater importance than immediate, unquestioning obedience to my paternal commands.

Well, this wouldn’t do, would it? And so, when my annoyance reached critical mass, I wrested my attention from the phone, and, placing it on the counter, raised my voice, prepared to lay down the law…and….


Good heavens.

“Kids!” I said threateningly, after pausing for a moment’s reflection, “…let’s go stand on the front porch and watch the thunderstorm!”

In response to which I received a resounding cheer and – I kid you not – one of them shouted, “You’re the best dad evvveer!!!!

I told this story recently to a friend, who seemed quite impressed at my presence of mind and fatherly awesomeness. For he, like me, has a smartphone, and he also has kids. And he knows what it is like to be “doing” something on your phone, while your children insistently demand your attention.

But, if you look at the thing objectively, with unprejudiced eyes, you will be forced to admit that there was only ever one correct response to the situation, and that it might as well have been clubbing me over the head. One simply does not tell one’s children to go to bed in the midst of a monsoon. If you have a covered porch (as we do), then the only right and proper thing to do is to pour yourself a glass of wine, and to let the kids stay up a little longer, and to watch and wonder with them until the first fury of the storm abates.

Indeed, I suspect that were the Natural Law ever to be written down, it would have a whole section dedicated to precisely this matter, listing grave punishments for the unimaginative and unfeeling fathers who should violate its sacred dictates, and the gravest of all for those who should do so in order to scroll through Twitter.

I came around, in the end. But it was touch and go.

Maybe this all sounds a touch melodramatic. But if you had seen the looks on my children’s faces as they stood in the darkness, their eyes glittering in the sudden blazes of celestial electricity, while the heavens unburdened themselves of a vast weight of water all around us, then you would understand that not to have forged that memory with them, would have been like being handed a nugget of pure gold, and to have absent-mindedly tossed it in the trash. Which is, I suspect, precisely what we all do many times a day, as we allow the world to pass us by, our noses held by some invisible force to our screens.

The following day, I enabled the “screen time” feature on my phone, setting it up so that it shuts down most apps starting at 7:00 pm. And I made my wife set the passcode, so that I can’t override it.

If I am not so much a fool as all that, then the next time there’s a thunderstorm like that, I’ll be the one clamouring at my kids to go out and watch it with me.

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