When we stare into the eyes of our newborn babies, we might fondly imagine that they will grow up vaguely like us – minus the bad bits. Our children share our genes, they are surrounded by our values and personalities, so surely they will be infused with our enthusiasm and aptitude for our favourite sports and hobbies, too?
A sporty dad might see a future filled with long summer days of kicking footballs, whacking tennis balls, dribbling basketballs or racing up and down the pool. An artistic dad might look forward to a life of colour and creative projects, and a musical dad might imagine a home filled with perfect harmony.
But as our children grow, we start to realise that – shock! – they are their own people. They are often nothing like us. Sometimes they couldn’t be more different.
An extreme example is camp British stand-up comedian Alan Carr and his football manager dad. His father was immersed in a blokey, testosterone-filled world – football was his life. But as a child, Alan wasn’t naturally sporty. This wasn’t for his father’s lack of trying. Alan remembers trips to the park with his dad making him run between trees and shouting, “Quicker, you fat fairy!” On Christmas Day, Alan would ignore the football boots and shin pads, but shriek with delight when he ripped open an Agatha Christie novel. No matter how hard either of them tried, Alan just wasn’t the sporty son that his father expected. In one of his comedy routines, Alan recalls telling his dad that he was going to study performing arts at university. “Why are you doing this to me?” asked his father. Alan replied, “I don’t know, Dad. But I could show you through expressive dance.”
The sporty parent pushing their reluctant child from the sidelines is a common stereotype. A father writing anonymously in The Times newspaper says that, as he came from a long line of sporting high-achievers, “It sets up a fairly typical subconscious expectation. I simply assumed my eldest son would inherit some of those not-so-impervious family sports genes.” But things didn’t work out as expected. He adds, “So when I realised that my son, at the age of four or five, was fundamentally unathletic, painfully slow (in terms of ground speed and reactions) and blessed with terrible hand-eye coordination, I was shocked. And then, being a typical angst-ridden,
21st-century dad, I felt horribly guilty about my own disappointment.”
Australian dad-of-three Darren can also identify with this. He says, “If I’m being honest, I’ve felt a bit disappointed that none of my children (two boys, aged 11 and nine, and a girl, seven) are really into sport. Obviously, I would never tell them I was disappointed.” Darren’s own childhood was filled with sport. “I bonded with my father when we were watching and playing sport, and I suppose I’d always imagined things would be the same with my own children.”
Darren now looks for other ways to bond with his children. “I try to take my guidance from them now as to what we do. But every now and again I will throw in a bit of a kick around or knock about, just to see if they might start to like it a bit more. I’m hoping that if I keep introducing all sorts of different sports, things like judo or climbing, we might stumble upon one they get enthusiastic about one day. Psychologists might say that I’m trying to live out my unfulfilled sporting dreams through my children. Who knows? All I know is that sport was such a big part of my life, and I don’t want my children to miss out.”
Out of key
When your passion is music, and you are a highly accomplished pianist, it can break your heart if your child shuns your hobby and blasts out heavy metal at volumes that could make your ears bleed. This is what happened to James. He says, “At first, my son took piano lessons, but it was a constant battle to get him to practise. As a child, I’d loved the sense of achievement when I mastered a new piece, and I had just assumed that my son would feel the same. The lack of practise was causing so many rows, we eventually gave up. As he has grown into a teenager, his musical tastes have veered so far away from mine – I’m still not sure if he really does like heavy metal, or if he’s just playing it because he knows I hate it. I have sat down and listened to it with him, just to see if there is anything I can be positive about, but there isn’t. Perhaps if I said I liked it, he’d go off it. The only way we can deal with it for now is that I’ve given him a good set of headphones.”
Having different hobbies from our children is one thing, but sometimes we can feel as if we are on completely different planets. Take American dad Steve. He is the sort of man you would describe as the life and soul of the party. His son – to Steve’s great surprise – is shy. Steve admits he finds it frustrating to see his son holding back when he could be having fun with his friends. And Italian dad Roberto, who currently lives in England with an English wife and two children, always assumed his children would pick up Italian effortlessly. But despite his attempts to teach them, this hasn’t happened, so Roberto can’t have a conversation with his children in his native tongue.
Finding common ground – even if it involves compromise – is crucial. Time spent together when children are younger will, according to experts, pay dividends in the future. Researchers have found that when dads have lots of involvement, their children have higher IQs, enjoy greater social mobility, and are less likely to become involved in anti-social behaviour. Daughters of more hands-on dads are less likely to have teen pregnancies, suffer from eating disorders or depression, or go on to have physically or emotionally abusive relationships. No pressure there, then!
Bruce Sallan, writer of the column “A Dad’s Point of View”, which is syndicated in newspapers across the US, explains that he had a trial run of parenting when he became involved with the Big Brothers mentoring organisation. He was matched up with an eight-year-old girl, and was looking forward to introducing her to all the sports he loved. But when she showed no interest in anything remotely sporty, he had to come up with a whole new set of activities that they would both enjoy doing in their time together.
When Bruce’s own children were born, they too showed little interest in anything athletic, but this time he was prepared. He says, “When your child does the sports you do, listens to the music you like, and enjoys the foods, movies and restaurants you do, let’s face the fact that it feeds your ego and is gratifying. But that isn’t what parenting is about. It’s about allowing your children to discover their own passions rather than mimicking yours … Your job as a parent is not to make a clone of yourself.”
Nurturing your child’s passions, even if at first you have zero interest, is a compromise worth making. Greg, a father of two from the UK, is an architect. In his spare time, he is a self-confessed computer geek. He says, “My son Jake’s obsession with football has come out of nowhere. I’m not sporty, my wife Karen isn’t sporty, so it didn’t really cross our minds that we’d be spending every spare hour standing at the sides of muddy football pitches in the English winter, freezing to death.”
At first, Greg hated the football obsession, but kept it up because Jake loved it so much and had such an obvious talent. He says, “I used to dread each match or training session. But in the long run, getting into football has been a good thing. Not only does Jake live for it, but I now have a new set of football-dad mates, and I’ve even gotten involved helping out at my son’s club. I now wonder what I used to do all the time before we discovered football.”
So when your children fail to share your passion for chess/synchronised swimming/playing the ukulele, Bruce Sallan reminds us, “They aren’t you and, other than sharing the same DNA, they are unique individuals. So, if they stay away from the paths you want for them, let it go and support their passions. It’s the passions that dictate our eventual success and life satisfaction.”