BECOMING a father is easy. Being a father, well, that’s another story. There’s no magic formula, no cheat sheet, and sometimes the rules of fatherhood change by the day. But there are a few tried-and-true tricks, which I’ve collected here for the greater good.
Mind you, these aren’t my tricks. I didn’t invent them—these are ancient tricks, passed down from father to son from time immemorial. Think of them as heirlooms, old beyond memory and record, trustworthy weapons in the armory-of-fatherhood.
1. HOW TO TIE A CLEAT HITCH
Yes, a cleat hitch. At some point or another, we all end up on a small boat approaching a dock. At such moments, there are two types of people—the feckless and the competent. The difference between the two: A simple figure-eight knot. Every Viking knew the cleat hitch as did every Greek. Odin taught it to Thor, Odysseus taught it to Telemachus, and you must teach it, too.
"Every Viking knew the cleat hitch as did every Greek. Odin taught it to Thor, Odysseus taught it to Telemachus, and you must teach it, too."
Tying a cleat hitch is easy, and there’s a satisfying beauty in its simplicity. Any child can master it in minutes. Good fathers know not to underestimate its value. More than a mere knot, it's a life lesson that translates more broadly into understanding how to be to a useful person, how to be assertive and take charge, and, most importantly, how to lend a hand.
Photo Credit: Ben FrantzDale via Wikimedia Commons
2. HOW TO NAVIGATE
In this age of driverless cars and global positioning systems, you would think that the days of being lost are behind us. But are they? Digital location tools rely on imperfect infrastructures. No matter where you live, city or country, you still occasionally need to rely on old fashioned trust-your-gut navigation. In addition, scientists have recently discovered that navigation is a use-it-or-lose-it skill; if we don't use it, the hippocampus begins to shrink, which simply confirms what good fathers have long known: Teaching kids to navigate gives them a bigger brain.
"Teaching kids to navigate gives them a bigger brain."
Navigation lessons are fun, as long as you don't force them down a kid's throat. Good fathers teach navigations lessons gradually, often in subtle ways. They point out the north star, for example, or they use cardinal directions in conversations. Sometimes, they point out useful landmarks when hiking, driving, or walking. Eventually, when the time is right, they employ the find-your-way-home challenge (which can be as simple as "I'll buy you a milkshake if you can get us home from soccer practice"). The ultimate goal isn't to turn a child into a Jason Bourne replica. It's simply to teach basic situational awareness, which in turn makes a child more cognizant and competent.
3. HOW TO BUILD A FIRE
Fire has always been essential to the human experience. We rely on fire for warmth, cooking, and to light our way. Wherever ancient humans traveled, they carried fire. There is also beauty in flame and comfort in the smell and sound of crackling wood. While some argue an understanding of fire is in our DNA, good fathers have always known that fire building is a skill that needs to be taught and supervised until mastered. If you raise a child who cannot build or respect a fire, is your child truly prepared? More to the point, when you reach the end of your road, will you look back and wish that you had sat around fewer fires with your kids? Doubtful. Fire is awesome, and its awesomness needs to be shared. A child who knows fire is one step closer to self-reliance, and self-reliance is one of the greatest lessons a father can teach.
4. HOW TO CLIMB A TREE
These days, parents hardly let kids do anything unless it’s scheduled on a Google calendar. Visit any playground and you’ll find parents hovering in chatty circles while their children play in pre-arranged "play dates" on tidy wooden structures. Tree climbing, on the other hand, is the antithesis of sanitized playground play. Every tree is unique, parents don’t circle around them, and once a kid scrambles up one there rises an incomparable sense of triumph that cannot be conjured elsewhere. Kids have been climbing trees for about six million years, which means that they already have tree climbing pretty much figured out. The best practice when it comes to teaching tree climbing is to get out of the way. The process is simple: Find a tree with inviting branches and let the kids have at it. Is it dangerous? A little. But good dads know that the potential benefits—grit, resilience, and bravery—far outweigh the risks.
5. HOW TO WHITTLE
The benefits of whittling are three-fold. First, whittling is an excellent way to introduce a child to an ancient and useful tool—the knife. For thousands of years, humankind has depended on the knife for survival and sustenance. Good fathers know that an hour with a knife teaches subtle lessons, reconnecting a child to a past worth knowing.
"Good fathers know that an hour with a knife teaches subtle lessons, reconnecting a child to a past worth knowing."
Second, whittling allows a father an ideal opportunity to teach knife safety and, by extension, the joy that comes when a tool is used well and the danger when it isn’t. Third, and perhaps most importantly, whittling allows a father to sit quietly with his son or daughter and share an extended moment in time—a pleasure all too rare in our hyper-connected and fast-paced world.