Ups And Downs Of Fatherhood

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

June 18, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Today dads all over Maryland will be opening gifts of socks, books, tools and, if we are lucky, a package or two containing something bad for us.

It is Father's Day. If you have forgotten, don't panic. There is still time to run around the corner and get Dad a card, a hunk of meat, or a bottle of his favorite liquid, which probably isn't sparkling water.

Virtually any gift is OK for Dad, as long as it is not pink or aimed at "reforming" him. On Father's Day, dads don't want to think about self-improvement. Instead, we want to wallow in what we are.

Father's Day is not emotionally charged, at least when compared to the voltage in the air on Mother's Day. On Father's Day, you can easily walk into a restaurant and get a good seat. On Mother's Day, there is a line stretching from here to Havre de Grace.

On Father's Day, unlike Mother's Day, long-distance circuits are not jammed. Not that many folks feel obligated to call Dad, and if they do get him on the line, he probably doesn't want to talk very long.

As someone who has experienced a few Father's Days -- first as a giver of the gift of socks and now as a recipient -- I have noticed that over the years, fatherhood has been up and down in the polls.

Now fatherhood seems to be on the uptick. Public opinion says dads are vital to family life. Dads are praised for teaching offspring to respect authority. According to one line of thought, moms trying to get their kids to obey are more likely to indulge or cajole. Dads are more inclined to lower the horns and butt heads. Nowadays, this head-butting is called limit-setting and is regarded as good.

Tough love from dads is OK, if we do it in a caring sort of way. It is even OK to lose our tempers as long as we recognize that what we are doing is "expressing our emotions."

Lately dads have been getting points simply for showing up. Social scientists say a male presence in a household can be a stabilizing influence on the family. It is important to our children that dads are on the scene, even if we do leave the towels on the bathroom floor. Our kids may regard us as clueless, but apparently if they know us well enough to mock our habits, things will eventually work out.

A few years ago, dads were supposed to be sensitive. Authority was out. Flexibility was in. If your kid cried, it was your fault. You had failed to communicate in a quiet, nurturing style. You were a brute.

That was a difficult period for some dads, especially those of us who are shouters. But at least we were credited with being an essential component of domestic life. That has not always been the case. From time to time, anti-male sentiment has run so high that a few women have contended that the only duty men were equipped to undertake was the biological task of starting a family.

Rumor had it there were some high-tech ways women could even get around the biology bit. Whew! This idea seems to have faded as more women realized it was convenient to have a guy around the house who could drive the kids to soccer games.

My own view is that while historically dads have held many important posts -- president, commander in chief, holder of the remote control -- our main areas of sway have been family transportation and household trash removal.

Throughout history dads have been the ones who rotated the automobile tires and generally tried to keep the household vehicles in working order. Moreover, when a vehicle broke down, or ran out of gas, or somehow ended up lost, dads were mostly the ones who answered the distress calls.

Regrettably, the ancient ritual of a father teaching his first-born how to drive has been transferred from dads to driving-school instructors. But there are still many driving habits and a few nicknames for stupid drivers that fathers can pass along to their offspring.

Finally, there is trash removal, the other dad-dominated duty. Even now, in an era when some women pump iron and compete in grueling triathlons, many women seem reluctant to lift a plastic bag filled with refuse and carry it out to an alley. Taking out the trash is the man's job. Or, put another way, to the males go the "spoilt" things.

Which, in a strange way, gets me back to the topic of Father's Day gifts. In my view, the best gift a child can give a dad is flattery. And as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest flattery.

And so when the day comes that my kids actually take out the trash the way I do, starting with the wastebaskets on the top floor of the house and working down to the wastebaskets on the bottom floor, that is the day I feel I will have succeeded as a father.

By the way, guys, tomorrow is trash day.

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