"You’re a better father than I ever was….” Those were the words of my late father two weeks before he died of cancer many years ago.
Most of my memories of being my father’s son are not good. For a short man he threw a big shadow. He was a rager and wielded immense control over my mom, sister, brother, me, even the family golden retriever. We all feared him. He once kicked the dog so hard that it peed on the floor.
But here’s the gift: my dad taught me exactly how not to father. Nature, nurture or neither?
My daughter and son, now in their twenties, have always been the most important humans on the planet for me. They're my closest friends, my confidants, my teachers. They are empathic, thoughtful and intelligent. Yes, I’m one proud papa.
Sebastian Junger says in his book “Tribe”: “What would you risk dying for...and for whom?”
My answer and likely that of many parents would be: Our children.
When my kids were young, my then-wife and I provided immense freedom to our children to make mistakes. We mentored, by example.
At a restaurant with our children and my parents, my father asked why we let the kids wander freely. “They should sit at the table like well-behaved children.” Like all parents, I have eyes in the back of my head so I knew exactly where the entrance and exit were. The other patrons enjoyed the kids' visits so all was quite well with the children. Just a simple symbolic example of our version of parenting.
Yes, stern parenting by fathers happened in my dad's generation. But there were others that embraced a more gentle approach. Traditionally fathers have been the breadwinner, rule maker and disciplinarian. Men were defined by their career. Though still the case, there’s certainly some shifting away from this today.
Personally I've always defined myself first and foremost as a father. Even back as a former media CEO and now a humanitarian doctor/charity CEO. Is our most important contribution to society based on making a product or delivering a service? Or is our greater role in the world raising amazing productive humans? Is that our legacy? A generation of children who grow up helping to create a better planet.
We raised our children on a small hobby farm in Connecticut. They grew up to appreciate caring for other sentient beings, mostly horses, chickens and sheep. Before and after school, they collected eggs to give to the neighbors, helped shear sheep and other farm tasks. I also placed my daughter on a horse when she was 4 and to this day she remains a professional equestrian.
But life is fragile. Our love for our children becomes more acute with the possibility of loss. My young son has had several potentially life threatening moments.
I have fond memories of letting my son steer the tractor while sitting in my lap. We were picking apples and I had placed the parking brake while we were on the ground. The brake slipped and it began to move. It rolled right over my son and the front wheel came to rest on his head! Literally I had to quickly back the machine off of him.
He was still conscious and I rushed him to the hospital. The scans showed no brain or cranium damage. Explaining what had happened...with tale tale signs of tread marks on my son's head, the doctor assumed this was a small ride-around mower. No, it was a 5000-pound tractor!
My son's head had sunk into the (luckily) wet soft muddy ground. That saved his life.
Over the decades that have passed I remain grateful for the lessons learned out of the adversity and pain of being my father’s son.
Andrew Lustig, ND is the Founder/President of Global Outreach Doctors, a charity providing medical staff around the world in war zones, refugee crisis regions, earthquakes and other natural disasters. He lives on his horse ranch in Santa Fe, NM, not far from MEA’s Ranch campus which will open in 2023.