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The 7 Rules of Being an Older Dad

Lessons learned as an older father

When we had Connor, I learned the meaning of hard work. Having a baby means showing your love through sleepless nights, changing diapers, and altering your life. I remember changing his diaper and in the middle of cooing at him, he peed-guess where his pee ended up? In the short five years I've spent as an older dad, I have discovered that my own experience validates the things I teach parents as a psychologist. My children have taught me the following rules of fatherhood.

1. The Rule of Squaring. If you have more than one child, don't add the numbers, square them. When there was only Connor, I could clean up his pee without another child tugging on my shirt. Raising one child did not prepare me for having two children under the age of 2. Don't get me wrong; I love being a dad to two bright and energetic kids, but together they need more than just double the energy of one. Younger dads probably know this rule, but it might not be as important to them as it is to an older dad. After all, younger dads have more energy to spend on being a dad. But as an older dad, to be a good dad to my children, I have learned the importance of the rule that "One is one, but two is four."

2. The Rule of Realism. My children run hard and play hard. They are inquisitive, adventuresome, and persistent. Notice that the words I use here are positive. I could also say: "They get into everything, constantly get into trouble, and never take no for an answer." The latter gives me a bad feeling. I have to be mindful of how I think about my children. When I let my mind think negatively, I react to my kids negatively. When I use ideas that feel positive, I react to them positively. I have an advantage as an older dad: I know how to put the right thoughts in my head.

3. The Rule of Limitations. When I was in my 30s, I had boundless energy. I remember staying up all weekend to write a successful grant proposal. In my early 50s (notice that I qualify where I am in my 50s), I still think I have boundless energy, but, the reality is, I have less energy than I think, and much less energy than in my 30s. In my 50s, I run out of energy more quickly. My job is to be a good dad-which means using much of my energy to meet the needs of my children. It's tempting to try and fit everything into a day, but I have to hold back for my kids. They need me to bathe them, read to them, and put them to bed. I have to have enough energy to be excited with them at the end of the day, and to be patient at all times.

4. The Rule of Mindfulness. When I was growing up, adults would say: "Mind what you are doing." Today, folks don't use this expression. But being mindful is a key to healthy parenting. When I was younger, life pressured me, and I was willing to let it pressure me. I wanted life to tell me that I was successful and made a difference to others. But the way I react to others, and to myself, can influence my mood throughout the entire day. Now I listen to my thoughts and stay in the here and now. Staying in the moment keeps me from reacting as if my son already broke the lamp or my daughter already fell off the slide. I bring myself back to their laughter and joy as they play, and this makes me a better dad.

5. The Rule of Confidence. My professors in graduate school were like most psychology professors-they reminded us that we didn't know a thing. Young people lose confidence when things go poorly. Older people have the experience of overcoming those moments; it's built into our view of life. My life experience has allowed me to test my fears about catastrophic outcomes. Even when bad things do happen, I learned that tomorrow is another day to learn from my mistakes. Research shows us that if parents believe they don't know what to do, and that catastrophes lurk, they become overly controlling with their children. In turn, their children become angry or anxious. Certainly younger dads aren't all insecure about parenting, but my years have helped me handle almost anything. Now I approach parenting, along with most everything else, with confidence.

6. The Rule of Opportunity. As a young professional, a wise and caring man mentored me. He asked me to write a grant proposal for children who were deaf and blind. My impulse: I couldn't do it and we would never win the grant. He told me: "If you don't write it, it won't get funded." I learned a valuable life lesson-if you don't keep your eye out for opportunities, you won't see them when they come along. Now, when my children are upset or angry, I've learned to see that as an opportunity as well. If they don't have these moments, then when do I teach them how to handle upsets? Psychologist John Gottman says that when a young child has feelings she can't control, let the child know that you understand, help the child find words to label the feeling, and teach them how to solve the problem.

7. The Rule of Investing. I think about my retirement much more now than when I was in my 40s. I think more carefully about saving, knowing that I'll want to work less soon enough. I see my time with my children as an investment as well. Each interaction with them gives me another chance to invest in their well-being, and invest in how they will see me later in life. Younger parents are less likely to think of their children as full-grown adults, who will remember their rearing years. Younger parents often spend time with their children without giving much thought to the return on their investment of parenting. Time, like money, can give a good return on investments-we just need to take the time to use it wisely. When we interact with our children, I've learned we should be mindful of how time is spent so that it will produce a good return-for both our children and for us.

The seven rules I've learned are true for all fathers. Maybe I am quicker to follow these rules because I am an older dad. No matter how old you are, though, a good dad is a good dad.

More from Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP
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