South Africa

Op-Ed: The cost of being a bad father

By Stuart Lowe 10 February 2015

There is an untold cost to bad fatherhood, whether you’re the father of a family or a father to the nation. As SONA looms, President Jacob Zuma might want to consider the basics as he considers his role as father to South Africa in 2015. By STUART LOWE.

I don’t know much about politics but I know a little about raising a family and parenting children. I reckon there are few differences between what’s required to run a harmonious, successful family and to run a harmonious successful country, or any leadership role for that matter. So I thought I’d list the basics here for consideration by all fathers, but particularly for our president, as he prepares to address us, the children of South Africa, on the state of our nation.
Be honest. There is no substitute for honesty and it’s not something you can fake. You can create elaborate cover-ups, spoil your kids with little treats to conceal the truth, but they will always sense when you are being dishonest. The cost of dishonesty is high. Without honesty your statements, your actions and your leadership have no value – and it confuses the hell out of the kids. If you cannot be honest then you have no place being a father to anyone. And kids are smarter than you think – your honestly will be respected in the same measure that your dishonestly will be revealed – all of it!

Be consistent. Children watch every move their parents make and listen to every word they say and don’t say. What they look for is evidence that what they think is right is consistent with what they see you do. If you have different responses to the same challenges or pressures at different times with different outcomes, then there is no way for the child to know which is correct. You cannot tell your kids not to steal if you have friends who are thieves. To be consistent you have to keep the right company. The cost of inconsistency is high – you deprive your children of their roadmap for life. They have no real guidance with their choices. The cost of inconsistency is irrelevance: “We don’t know what you stand for – you are no help to me”.

Be brave. Horrible things have happened in the past and horrible things will happen in the future. Parenting is a challenge in good times but it’s in bad times that it really counts. Be brave enough to call it as it is. Confront the brutal truth as it reveals itself and share the reality of it with everyone it affects. That takes bravery but you will be releasing your children from the even scarier pictures they imagine. Then paint pictures of a better future, take a deep breath and lead them to a better place. The process is the same for a kid stubbing her toe as it is for a national calamity. The cost of being a coward is high. If you hide from the truth your children will find someone else to believe, someone else to follow to a brighter place. Cowardice and dishonesty are cousins – and your children see one as clearly as the other.

Be selfless. If you can’t be selfless, don’t have children. Your family’s needs come first and if there is food, or money or time left over – help yourself. It’s a primal instinct to tend to the young. Your job as a parent is to provide for everyone in your family. It’s not easy and at times it is not even possible but that’s the job. If you can’t ride that bus you should not have bought the ticket. The cost of greed is high! Your children will see you put yourself first. They will hate you for it and they will shame you for it.

Be loyal. A common sense of purpose is what binds families. If it is ever questioned or threatened your children need to see you defending that purpose – defending what the family stands for. If you have not been loyal to your own there is no point in your children being loyal to you. The cost of betrayal is high. If you destroy your children’s belief in your leadership, you will break the glue that binds you together.

Be kind. Children hate bullies. If you have to resort to fear as a tool to lead – you have already lost the battle. Fear is a terrible thing for anyone to live with but for the vulnerable it is completely debilitating. Children cannot function when they are scared. If you are doing the right things for the right reasons then have the confidence to be a kind leader. The cost of bullying is high! People will instinctively follow firm but kind leaders but out of fear, they will follow only instruction. That is not leadership.

Be present. The pace of life is frantic and the pressures are massive. That’s why your presence is the best gift you can give your children. If you are absent too often you will try to compensate with treats and loose boundaries. Your kids will take both, but it’s not what they need. They need you. The cost of absence is high. Your children will be forced to make up their own family stories, their own rules and ultimately they will find someone else to share their lives with. It’s a long lonely way back from there – so spend time with your kids.

Be sorry. Perfecting parenting is like perfecting politics – it’s not possible. Things have gone wrong in the past, things will go wrong in the future – and you will make mistakes. Your children need to see your remorse for your failures, big and small. Just knowing that you know and admit that you have erred and that you are not perfect is a massive comfort to them. It gives them permission to try and to fail, and to learn and to try again. The cost of not saying you are sorry is high. Those that follow you will never know what you intended to do in the first place.

Beware. Everything has consequences and in parenting they are absolute. The way you lead your family will determine exactly what you get from them in return. You can find some comfort in possessions and distraction but if you get it wrong you will reap what you have sown. Get it right you will enjoy the rewards of a happy, harmonious family, confident children and the resilience to deal with whatever comes. If you get it wrong you will have long lonely stares in the mirror knowing that that your job was to lead and you failed your family, yourself and those who came before you.

Be gone. Here there is a difference between politics and fatherhood. You will never stop being a father so you are obliged to get it right. But if you have had the privilege of leading an organisation or a country and you find yourself in the unhappy place where your “family” are scared of you; if they do not respect you, cannot trust you and choose not to follow you, you should save them (and yourself) by not pretending to lead, and leave quietly.

The cost of staying is high! You will ruin your “family” and their future. You will stand in the space meant for an authentic father and not allow the true leaders to emerge. You will do no good.

The cost of being a bad father is high. DM

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