The average father spends eight hours at work, two hours watching TV, two hours on his phone, but seven minutes talking with his children. This father shares how he broke the cycle.
“My child arrived just the other day, he came to the world in the usual way. But there were trains to catch, and bills to pay; he learned to walk while I was away.
-Harry Chapin, Cat’s in the Cradle
I despise that song.
Actually, I love the song. I sing along to it every time I hear it. I despise the story behind it. If you aren’t familiar with the Harry Chapin tune, it is a story about a dad that doesn’t make time for his son while he is young. His son grows into a father, and their role switches. He becomes the son with no time for his dad. It’s incredibly depressing and should serve as a warning to every father today.
I heard the song driving home and it made me somber, but also curious. I went home to look up stats about fathers today, and the results were even sadder than when the song was written in 1974.
- The average American father spends eight hours and forty-five minutes at work per day.
- The average American father watches two hours and forty-nine minutes of television per day.
- The average American father spends two hours and forty-two minutes on his phone.
- The average American father spends seven minutes a day talking with his children.
Please read those stats one more time and let it sink in.
I heard a saying recently. I would have laughed if it weren’t so true. “Spend time with your kids now,” it quipped, “or you will spend the time with them later in therapy.”
I can’t imagine that any father sets out to be part of these awful stats. When our first son Andrew was born nearly ten years ago, I would bet that I watched even more than three hours of television daily. It’s difficult to admit now how much time I wasted. But he was a baby sleeping most of the time, so the endless reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens weren’t harming anybody. Were they? And those Sundays of watching football, football, and, oh yeah, more football was just my way of winding down.
It turns out that it’s not about intentions. It’s about habits. And I had developed some awful ones.
It wasn’t until our son Dylan was born 3 1/2 years ago that I began to pay attention to the nasty habit I had developed. Our television was on constantly. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s idea, and the kids weren’t big enough to turn it on. I guess that leaves just me. The endless array of SportsCenter, mind-numbing sit-coms, or Dora the Explorer had me too distracted to pay attention.
In 2012, I got sucked into the political drama of the vitriolic Presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As election night roared into the dramatic final hours, I heard Elizabeth upstairs playing a boisterous, belly laugh-inducing game with the boys. I stared at the talking heads while they stirred the pot. When it became clear that Barack Obama was going to win, I heard a commentator excitedly mention how the race for 2016 would soon be beginning.
I turned off the television and realized what a waste of time I had just allowed myself to get sucked into. It wasn’t just that night. It was the months leading up to it. And they were now letting us know that they would be fanning the fires for the next four years. I stared at the blank screen and realized he would have been President the next day whether I watched the news or not. I had to think about the endless games that I would watch almost nightly. Is any baseball or hockey team worth three hours of my night?
Television is just a part of the distraction. I’d guess that if I put these numbers up next year, time staring at a phone would surpass time in front of the television. As fathers, we need to start asking ourselves a vital question.
What really matters?
Work does matter. It provides fulfillment and income. But it no longer dictates our life and our time. Living in the freelance world, everyday can be a roller coaster of business emotions. I heard it said once that entrepreneurs are the only people who know what it feels like to go from the extreme highs to the excruciating lows on a daily basis. But it is just work. And it’s just money.
We’ve decided, as a family, that what is on television doesn’t matter. I’m proud to share that we cut down to basic cable, and barely watch that anymore. Our evenings are now filled with board games, horse play, music and awesome dinners by my wife. I’ll still catch the Steelers game many weekends, but I actually enjoy it more when it’s on the radio. I can catch the game, spend time with the kids and not be subjected to watch the horrendous commercials.
My next hurdle is my phone, which I’m having a more difficult time breaking up with. But it’s important to be aware of its allure to take my attention away. When the television is off, it’s out of my mind. But the phone is always there, enticing me with red alerts of new email, Facebook comments, and an entire cyber world of useless information. The mail check disguises itself as a harmless little audit, but its circle of influence ensures that my attention is away from the people that matter.
These devices are a gift. They have made life much easier and more convenient in countless ways. But when the dad hat goes on, I need to be careful that it doesn’t change from a gift to a sneaky, time sucking diversion.
What matters, what truly matters, are our kids. I’m not talking about enabling them and giving them material things. I’m certainly not advocating making them believe that the earth revolves around their heads. I am talking about building healthy relationships within our family. Creating a strong bond to carry on through generations.
That can’t be done by consistently pulling in more overtime hours. It can’t be done sitting in front of the television. It can’t be done while scrolling through an iPhone. And it certainly can’t be done in seven minutes. Our kids will follow what we do, good or bad. And if we don’t change as fathers, we are setting them up for failure. One of the final lines of Chapin’s hit song describes the reality of what dads might come to grips with later if we don’t change what we are doing.
“…And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”
Photo: Flickr/ sean dreilinger
This article originally appeared on Into the Uncommon