If you want to be there for someone, there’s just one thing you have to do.
As a father, thinking about my awkward and stumbling attempts to teach my sons, mentor my boys, the one thing I think I got right was presence. I was there for my sons. In ways that I didn’t feel that my dad was there for me, I was there for them. And as they have grown and begun to cut their own path forward, I think presence may have been the most important thing I could have given them—presence—my presence—access to me. If I were writing a curriculum for mentoring boys, the introduction and conclusion would insist on presence as the critical First Rule of Mentorship.
Boys who grow up well have access to men who can teach them. They have a father or an uncle, a teacher or a coach, a minister or an instructor, a big brother or an older friend—a mentor—someone who is there for them—someone who is accessible to them—someone who will let them see how it is that men behave and is willing to talk with them about why men do what they do and are what they are. Boys who don’t have that have to figure it out on their own. And that is a tough assignment. Anyone who hopes to mentor boys has to be willing to be present, available, and accessible. It doesn’t work any other way.
I remember trying to teach my sons about life. I wasn’t so much teaching them to be “good men” as to be “good people”. I had a list of things I wanted to teach them; a list of things that I thought were key ingredients to being a happy, well-adjusted, productive person:
- Work hard
- Be honest and trustworthy
- Think about others
- Be on time
- Keep your things in order—i.e. clean your room!
- Respect others and the things that belong to them
- Be generous with your time—with compliments—with resources
- Take care of yourself
- Be self-sufficient, but
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
- Cry when you are sad, laugh when you are happy, feel what you feel
- Let people know what you think—and feel
I thought it was a pretty good list. It wasn’t exhaustive, but I figured if my sons could learn those things, and live them, they would be pretty good guys. And I would be proud of them for that. I looked for opportunities to teach the lessons to my boys. Sometimes the opportunities came when they screwed up and I was “correcting” them. Sometimes it was through my own actions, things that I was doing. Sometimes the opportunities came through something that was happening around us, something we were watching or doing together. When these opportunities arose, we would talk about what was happening.
More often than not, I remember feeling like my sons were humoring me when I tried to “teach them.” They usually listened politely, but I could always tell when they had checked out. Their eyes would wander, their feet would fidget, they would ask questions that had nothing to do with what we were discussing—what I was discussing. Then, at the first opportunity, they were onto something else. And I was left to wonder if they had heard anything I had said. I was never sure they had. I hoped they heard something useful. I hoped I wasn’t wasting my time and making myself seem irrelevant, or comical, in their eyes. But it was important to me to keep trying. So I did.
What I have found as my sons have become young adults is that much more was sinking in than I realized at the time. I hear them say things that I would have said. I see them interact with people in ways that I would want them to interact. I watch them deliberate and make decisions that remind me of the list of lessons I tried to teach them.
But when we reminisce, they don’t remember the lessons. They remember stories. They remember the things we did together, not the things we talked about. They remember the time I spent with them.
One son reminds me of his soccer team I coached and how I had to deal with the loud, bossy, crazy parents who were mad at me for not giving their son or daughter more playing time.
The other remembers his 8-year-old basketball team that I coached, and the index cards that I gave to each player after the games with stars all over them and a list of the things he or she had done well that game.
They remember the bedtime stories I told them each night and catching fireflies on summer evenings. They remember me calling them out to the deck at dusk to hear the “summer sounds.” They remember the big snow we had one year and the luge run that we built down the hill in our back yard. They remember the first time they beat me in a basketball game in the driveway and when they were finally big enough to pick me up, or knock me over when we were wrestling.
Those are the things that they remember, not the lessons that came with them. They remember that I was there with them, and there for them. And that seems to have mattered more than anything I could have taught them. That’s what allows them to come to me now when they are struggling with career or relationship questions. That’s what gives them the freedom to share their hopes with me or to challenge my thinking on politics or social issues.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my commitment to spending time with my boys, built a permanent pathway that keeps us connected and present to each other, to this day. I thought I was supposed to teach my boys, mentoring my boys, but what I was doing was far more important than that. I was creating a pathway to presence that is irrevocable.
My sons know that I am there for them, now, just as I was then. Only now, the issues they are dealing with are a lot bigger, and more consequential, than the ones we navigated in their childhood. And my hope is that they hear my voice when they ask themselves questions, and they remember my actions when they wonder what they should do. And in those ways, I will remain present to them long beyond my days with them.
Read more on Mentoring and Volunteering.
Image credit: roy.luck/Flickr