I Don’t Know How to Be a Good Father

She was a little over two feet tall. She was a US citizen. But she didn’t speak English. She would shit in her pants. She couldn’t feed herself. She cried often for no reason. She hit me.

She’d get out of the bath and there was no need for clothes. Just a black mess of wet curls at the top of her head. I’d make an imaginary line in the floor. We’d stand there. She couldn’t stop jumping from one foot to the next, dripping wet. And then I’d throw the ball. I’d yell, “Go!” She’d start running after it. I’d chase after her, “get that baby! Get that baby!”

Her laughter would turn into squeals.  Her tiny feet on the floor was a drum roll.  The ball would be bouncing all over the place. It was a super bouncing ball. I was right on her heels. I could feel the fear as she’d try to go faster. I was so much bigger, more powerful, faster, smarter, and in love with her laughter. I could scoop her up any second I wanted but that would stop the laughter.

We’d run all over the apartment. Her laughter filling every corner. The ball long since forgotten. Now it was just pure chase. And once I would grab her and held her I would be in total control, the master of her universe. So she would run as fast as she could, trying to outsmart me, trying for the first time ever to be her own person, but there was just  no hope for her and we both knew it.

(It was something, simply….wonderful)

Now she knows English. Now she’s taller. Now she’s older. Now I don’t chase her. She’s faster than me and I’m lazy.  Now it’s harder for me to make her laugh. It’s harder for me to draw an imaginary line we both can stand at, even for a second.

I don’t really know how to be a good father. I didn’t want kids in the first place. I don’t know how to set boundaries. I don’t know how to solve the problems of being a tween, or a teen, or a kid, or a mini-adult. I don’t know what clothes they like. Or what games to play. I’m not even sure I know how to solve my own problems.

I don’t know what’s good for them or bad for them . I’m not as confident as “China mom” and I’m not that great as a laissez faire father. When they are here for the weekend we just sit around on computers. I hate going outside in the sun. When they cry I don’t know how to respond. I hug them a lot. But I don’t know if I’m really that good at protecting them. I tell them I love them. But I spoil them too much.

I don’t know how to tell them to pursue a passion. I wish when I was 12 I had pursued a passion. But you can’t ignite that fire in another person. I don’t know how to help them make friends. I say out loud things like, “school’s a prison” because, no BS, it is. But I can’t home school them. No energy to do that.  If I’m too tired at night to cook them something, they have to fend for themselves. I don’t know how to solve the bickering they have with each other.

And in a few years none of these problems won’t matter. They’ll be gone. It will be too late. I won’t matter at all. Maybe I can be a good grandfather.

A decade ago, I’m chasing her until I hear her breathing hard. The ball nowhere to be found. My little one year old is tired. I scoop her up and hold her over my head. She’s laughing. Squirming in my hands. Protected and held by me. I got her! I’M A FATHER!

Related Posts

I do give some advice to them. But they aren’t necessarily good for day for day. They are more advice for kids on how to be better adults:

  1. Is it Bad I wanted My First Kid to Be Aborted
  2. Advice I Want to Give My Daughters 
  3. How to Turn Your 12 Year Old Into An Entrepreneur
  4. And, of course, my children should Follow Me on Twitter.
  • I don’t what the ingredients are to be considered a good father; I suspect there are too few good fathers anyway. At 12, weren’t you writing letters to Senators? That’s something you were committed to. I think Chris Rock said it all when he said he’d consider himself a good father if he could just keep his daughters “off the pole.” Be a part of their life and make sure they don’t default to finding love & money using their bodies.

    • Yep, Rock said that.  You don’t want your daughters wearing clear heels.  ‘Nuff said.

  • James we are opposites in many ways.My children are grown and I have grand children I almost never see but I believe my sons would say I was a great father.When I was young I knew that when I grew up(hasn’t happened yet)I wanted to be a father.When my ex and I parted company she moved to Port Jeff and I moved back to my parents hoarder home in Lindenhurst.Since I had  no other option I bicycled to Port and back most every weekend to see my kids.When my ex went crazier when they reached their teens and threw each of them out I got custody.I gave custody of my older son to people who would send him to Cornell though he could have gone to LIU on full scholarship.He could have lived with me and my folks as the hoarder situation got resolved(mom accidentally burned the house down) but he wanted to go to Cornell and be a rich kid.My younger son I allowed to live with another family where the dad was a Nobel winning Physicist as my son was majoring in Physics.In both families they have now brothers and sisters.I did what I thought best for them.As the saying goes no good deed goes unpunished their alternate families see them and my grandchildren often and I see them almost never.If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t have kids there are enough of other peoples to go around.

  • Anonymous

    I worry about how to influence my kids too. How do you ignite that spark? I’ve tried to talk to my 13 year old son about entrepenuership, flexibility, the value of creativity and energy over “education” and meaningless credentials. It doesn’t seem to sink in. He wants to go to college to learn “business”. I feel like I can save the kid a solid decade of frustration but it looks like he’s going to buy into the same nonsensical horseshit I did. It doesn’t work, of course, barely worked for my father’s generation and certainly won’t work in the future. Dunno what to do with the kid.

    • Anonymous

      Let him do what he wants, he’s going to do that anyway… ;)

  • Looking at some of your other posting just want to mention I always told my kids their life is their own,They make their own decisions,they face their own consequences.Some of the best women I have met make a living on the pole.In this uncertain world I find it comforting that what ever else changes attractive woman with pleasant personalities can always make a good living even with no education or skill set.

  • Jake

    Great post James. A great narrative of a real life father’s struggles, insecurities, and limitations (because we’re humans with many faults).

    What can we do? Just love them I guess, and show that we love them, which you seem to be doing very well. And trust that when they grow up, they’ll at least remember that you loved them and that they felt loved. I think that goes a lot farther than anything else we can do for them. Having been a kid that never felt loved, I can vouch for that.

  • Here’s what I suggest:

    Just listen, don’t be judgmental, but guide. Do what you say you will do (keep your word).  Keep listening.  Always keep their secrets secret. Spend time together doing something each day they are at your house.  Whatever you do together, remember it doesn’t have to take up the entire day. Spend some one on one time with each daughter, that’s important.  And also remember when they are at your house they might like to do something on their own, or maybe just with Claudia (girl time – plus everyone needs a little space)

    Learn something together, cook something different together, go somewhere new together, eat weird food….the key is to share experiences, no matter how simple they are. Get comfortable with silence. And don’t worry – it’s a learning curve for both you and your children, uncharted territory. 

    You are a great dad already because you care enough to honestly question yourself. I don’t think you have to worry.

    •  like these ideas. I’m trying to spend more one on one time with each of them. Thanks 736!

  • James

    Keep trying….that’s all any parent can do.

  • You are good father :)

  • You are a very good father, I know, I’ve seen you

  • Anonymous

    Being childfree gives me license to dispense wisdom as my non-children are perfect and always will be.

    Not knowing is forgivable.  Not trying is not. 

  • S34ndad

    Fill them up with LOVE. Everything else flows from this. Your post reflects that love.

  • Sussan

    Loved this! You sound like a great father because you have the right doubts, ask the right questions.I was listening to a friend talk about his poverty-stricken childhood the other day. It sounded a lot like my childhood. I realized as he spoke, that my parents demonstrated love by finding ways to compensate for bad times, They met my needs without deep pockets. I didn’t understand we were “lower-middle-class” until I was old enough not to care. I was too busy being a poor, happy kid. My friend remembers his impoverished childhood because he was not unloved. No one tried to compensate for him. Children need to know that they have parents who care, who will make it right, who care enough to try. The rest is gravy.

  • Edm325

     Really, you’re just like the rest of us. We all have our doubts and insecurities. We all believe that the next guy is doing it better. He’s not. All we can do is be ourselves and hope that it’s enough. I think your children are lucky to have a father who is so caring, introspective and self aware.

  • mousekateer

    nobody knows how to do it James.  There is no right way because every child is a separate little human.
    time spent with them is the priceless commodity on both ends.  It is fleeting as they grow so fast.
    As small and insignifigant as you have sometimes felt(from your writing),  in a child’s eyes, you are the great protector.  Children are scared, they need your presence to take away that fear of a world they do not understand.
    You are their giant, their gaurd at the door, their muscleman between them and the bogeyman under the bed or that “giant” bug.

    Be their giant, larger than life protector and you have been a good father.

  • I think my father feels this way. And he’s right. But he’s also wrong. 

    My dad had some awful moments when I was a kid. Much worse than your worst moment, I imagine. He told us he was going to kill himself because he and my mother were fighting. He left, drunk, in his car. He didn’t come home for three days. We, as a family, sat and wondered whether he had done it; whether he had killing himself. 

    I sat and wondered how. 

    He and I are close now. Perhaps even closer than my mother and I, though I know she was the one who did the bulk of the parenting when I was a kid. I know that he loves me. I know that he has always loved me. But as a teenager I didn’t know shit. 

    No teenager does. 

    • Well, I know the feeling on both sides. I’m sorry you had to go through that. 

  • Mano Subramaniam

    You will never know, but you’ll feel it….. a father who thinks how to be a good father show’s he’s a good father. You’re a good father.

  • Avenist

    Unfortunately children do not come with an instruction manual but if you understand that they are economic actors seeking a wide range of resources. you can look at them as customers that you love and whose lives depend on you.

    Since the free market is best at satisfying both participants in an economic exchange, you would ideally want to apply as many of the aspects of a free market as you can. By doing this, you can civilize a child and at the same time, allow the child to develop as naturally as possible. Teach them the one economic system that doesn’t exist in nature and you teach them to be human.


    • Ha, they are definitely economic actors. I will check out that link. 

  • I’m with you James.  I often worry I will raise an axe murderer.  I watch my step dad and to me he seems like THE best dad on the planet.  Spending time with him and my kids sometimes makes me irritable because I feel so inadequate.  It bugs me so much I posted on it: http://laststopthissideoftheriverstyx.blogspot.com/2011/07/raising-cain.html

    If they still love you JA then you are doing something right.

  • Anonymous

    You are already a good father. Here’s why this is evident:

    1. You understand the important things, such as taking them for walks around the block in their pajamas.

    2. You will teach them to master one of life’s most important skills – How to Deal with Crappy People. 

    3. The fact that you recognize that school is 1. Boring. 2. Many of the other kids are evil. 3. It’s hard to sit still for 45 minutes while an adult goes on about something that none of them will ever remember. 4. Some of the adults in school are evil too. Most adults would not ever recognize this, much less acknowledge it. #4 is my addition to your already excellent list.

    4. Your handling of the large scary monster bug on the wall followed by your musical rendition with bug spray can as microphone was masterful parenting. Another trick that I have found works well when the kids are driving you nuts is to grab a nearby significant other (when available) and start making out. Sometimes just the threat of making out is enough to deter annoying offspring from bothering you for awhile.

    I have three kids, one already in college, and the only thing that I know for sure is that there is no twelve step program or recipe for being a good parent. It has been my experience that raising kids is, by in large, a fly by the seat of your pants operation. You try to recognize when you screw up so that you don’t do it again and then you just do the best that you can moment by moment. 

    • Didn’t understand teenage girls 40 years ago.  Don’t understand them now.  Now I have  a wisp of a daughter in college who makes grown men cry.  Beyond a great article.

    • That is hilarious. 

  • Sooz

    you have raised the bar.
    I’m certain the girls will tell you that you are the best most awesome and greatest father!

    • Sooz

      when they express their dislike for you(any given random moment) is when you will know you’ve hit the bar(greatness) and they in turn will know how much you really..REALLY love them.

  • Anonymous

    Help them learn to question and to think for themselves and give them lots of love and you will have done more than most. After that there is not much else you can do. -There are so many variables that parents can’t control.

  • Anonymous

    Why aren’t you applying your formula to parenting? Read everything you can, exercise your parenting muscles as often as possible, emulate those parents you admire…I suspect there is a book in you about parenting waiting to be written. At least a post.
    I suspect you are a pretty good dad. Your kids are definitely adorable!

    • Yeah, I should do all of that. Thanks. 

      • James, I’m not great at a lot of things, but I am a great father.  My main 3 tips: 1.Really love your kids. Spend time with them – play games, listen, kid with them, teach them things. 2. Touch your kids a lot: hug them, kiss them, tickle them, wrestle with them, let them sit in your lap 3. Have consistent discipline and boundaries for your kids. Kids need a parent, not a friend. They NEED boundaries and the NEED you to be consistent in enforcement.  Also, here’s a great book:
        Have a new kid by Friday. How to change your kids attitude, behavior, and character. By Kevin Lehman. http://amzn.to/ptTNAw

  • Beautifully written.   

  • Siddhartha Herdegen

    It’s hard to know if you’re good at parenting. There’s no
    data, no scorecard, no outcome to analyze. But we have a tendency to proclaim
    we’re good at things we can’t quantify so at least you’re thinking about it.

  • Look, if it doesn’t work out with your kids, you can be my Daddy.


    • It might be more difficult to get you to clean your room. 

  • Mike Nadel

    Play board games and card games with them. I’m talking about old-timey stuff like Trouble, Life, Clue, backgammon, Yahtzee, cribbage, etc. They might at first roll their eyes at the notion of putting down their phones and laptops to play these games, but they secretly will like the interaction. And regardless of your kids’ ages, NEVER let them win. That teaches them nothing. They will beat you in due time, and they’ll feel good when they do it.

    There. That’s all this parent of nearly 25 years has.

    Oh yeah … love them and all that crapola, too.

    • I taught my younger son to play chess at Five.He was beating adults at age six.He and I tied for first in 97 NYState under 1800 Championship.Though he has masters in Physics he plays poker for a living.He lives in Vegas.

  • Tim D

    I’m the father of a three year old boy and a year and a half year old little girl. I’m constantly trying to develope the “list” of wise things I want to teach them that hopefully they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. So far I have two:

    Always be kind. It will take you further than any degree, job, or amount of money ever will. It will make you happier as well.

    Never be selfish. Think about every crime or sin committed. You can always trace it back to selfishness.

    I’m hoping to come up with at least two more. Knowing their father’s level of unconditional love I hope will be apparent so that probably won’t make the list.  

    • kovalensky

      This may sound stupid but teach them math. It is a completely different way to think. It doesn’t have to be formal just play games like 2, 4 6, what’s the next number. Then they try to stump you and later problems and praise. I had good luck with teaching them math, though I don’t know if it will work with all kids.

  • Jdub

    I have a 15 year old girl.  I have always said that if I can give her a positive self esteem and the  ability to learn then I have done my job.  So far so good. 

  • Kevin M

    I’m the guy chasing around the one year old. It is pretty special. Sometimes I think about what you’re describing here, but I remind myself to enjoy “today”. I think one job as parents is to let our kids be kids as long as possible. There will be plenty of time to worry, stress and deal with crappy people. Just being there for them is a huge advantage over some kids. I think the spark can only come by being a good example and them eventually figuring it out. I’m not sure you can “tell” a teen to do anything.

  • firstbase613

    The fact that you are willing to ask how good you are, shows that you are at least decent, with potential, at the Dad job. Allow me to suggest that you take (drag?) the kids outside without a plan. You see a pharmacy? Invite them to choose a magazine. See an ice cream shop? Invite them to choose a flavor they never had. Maybe you know the kid likes pickles, wander into the supermarket, let them see the huge variety of refridgerated and non refridgerated pickles. With vinegar, without vinegar, maybe you buy a few bottles or cans, and go home for a taste test, and perhaps a new favorite pickle is found. Bookstores always have childrens sections. Hand them 20 dollars and say spend it. You might see some great comparison shopping taking place you never imagined. (i.e. this book looks more interesting to me but this one has 50 more pages.) As my parenting teacher Burt taught me, “as they get older the problems get bigger too, but so will your wisdom”.

  • Msstrong24

    I don’t have kids but I’m more interested in how much it actually matters for children to have “good” parenting?  Plenty of examples of negligent (or worse) parenting where the kids turn out to be great additions to society.  Opposite is true too.

    • superhl

      “Good parenting” is everthing. There are exceptions. Show me kids who have a father who spends time with them and I will show you future successfuly people. Show me kids who father abandons them, and I will show you future inmates.

  • Who is, man?  Would someone who embodies all the characteristics we’d agree make a good father be blogging about what a good father they are?

    I’ve got kids, two living and one deceased, and with all the ups and downs I still don’t know a damn thing about parenting.  Well, I know two things, actually.  First, that the only thing you can do is try to be the best parent that you can to your own kids.  Nobody can tell you how to do it and nothing prepares you until you are already neck-deep in child.  Second, that the one thing you need to do is make sure your kids never question whether you love them or not.  They’ll hate a lot of your decisions, you’ll make a ton of mistakes, but it will all work out as long as they never feel unloved.  Even my 4.5 year old knows that just because I tell her I’m furious or disappointed or that I cannot listen to another word she has to say (and the talking never ends at that age), her mother and I will always love her and her siblings very much.

    Love is the only thing I can guarantee that they’ll get from me.

  • Jeffbeary

    love you.

  • Sharmeen rafique

    Hey James!
    This is not your Dilemma but also of all those who have some realisation but passive.

  • Jon

    That is a very sweet post. In another post you mention that divorce “forever changes how you interact with your kids”. What exactly did you mean by that? Would you possibly consider doing a post on that subject? I would greatly appreciate it. Have a great day.

    • James Altucher

      That’s a good idea, Jon. Thanks

  • Michael Shortland

    Awesome James, just awesome writing .