My own bike-riding lessons with my father couldn't have been more different. On my fifth birthday, he took the training wheels off my blue Huffy two-wheeler, and for the next few months we brought it to the parking lot down the street on Saturday afternoons to practice. I'd get on and he would grip the back of the bike seat, running unevenly alongside the bike while I pedaled. For months, every time he let go, I would topple right over.
By the end of the afternoon, I'd be sniffling in frustration and rubbing my scraped knees, but my father never seemed to get discouraged. As a boy, he'd had polio, and one of his hands and legs were still paralyzed. After a lifetime learning to live with his own awkwardness, I guess he could deal with mine. A tutor would have taught me to pedal and balance, I'm sure, but only my father could share with me his quiet patience as he limped alongside my two-wheeler.
For me, those Saturday afternoons in the parking lot offer a guiding metaphor for spiritual nurture. Maybe today's dads imagine our kids would be better off learning about God and spiritual things from a trained professional-a minister, a Sunday school teacher. It might be easier that way. But there's no substitute for parents. Just by sharing our very human selves with our children-with all our history and all our limitations-we help them to move forward, however haltingly, until they discover their own balance.
Unfortunately, spiritual nurturing doesn't come naturally to many fathers. Mothers often tell me how frustrated they are that their partners don't participate more in children's religious upbringing. "My husband's just not interested," said one mother of a preteen girl, sighing. "He comes to church, but he doesn't tell our daughter what he believes. I think it's hard for him to be that vulnerable."
Lack of time with the children is undoubtedly part of the problem. Despite the increasing numbers of women out in the workforce, today's children are still spending less time at home with their fathers than with their mothers. And children are more likely to talk with their mothers about things that matter to them-according to a 1998 Barna research poll, 70% of teens have daily conversations with their mothers about an important issue in their life, compared with 53% with their fathers.
Myth 1: To be a spiritual parent, you have to preach. Talking about beliefs to kids doesn't mean having all our ideas wrapped up in a neat package. Thoughts about God mean more to a child if they are expressed simply and spontaneously. A non-churchgoing friend told me that he steers away from telling his kids what to believe. "I'm not into big displays of piety or talking endlessly about God. It reminds me of the pompous ministers I grew up with," he said.
"You mean you never talk about God with your kids?" I asked.
He was silent for a few seconds, and then his face softened. "Well," he added, "I guess I do it my own way. One day last week, my son and I were going for a walk around dinnertime. There was a great sky-all reds and oranges and purples. So I said, 'Look at that sunset, David. Never forget that sunset.'" By sharing a moment of sheer wonder, in a natural way that had nothing to do with the pontificating he so dislikes, my friend had drawn his son into the age-old sacred tradition of offering thanks and praise.
Myth 2: To be a spiritual parent, you have to pray. Traditional forms of prayer-tranquility, solitude, holy words murmured in the midst of the week's busyness-are essential for many of us, but often fathers connect with God in more active ways.
I asked a group of adults if they could remember a time in childhood when they felt close to God. Slowly and quietly, people around the room began to speak of nature walks, special times in church, family vacations. Then a bearded man raised his hand. "For me," he said, clearing his throat, "it was kicking a soccer ball." After the nervous laughter in the room had subsided, the bearded man said, "I mean it. Every time I kicked that ball I felt like I was using all my energy, I was outside in the fresh air, and everything felt great. God was with me." I had the sense he was talking about a deep sense of joy, the delight in movement for its own sake that some discover in yoga or tai chi or dance. For him, playing soccer was a kind of prayer, and playing with his kids connected them in ways that transcended the physical.
When I was growing up, a frequent topic of conversation at my family's dinner table was the discrimination in my father's office. The son of an Italian shoemaker, the first in his family to go to college, he would tell us with a mixture of admiration and envy about the members of the "old boys network" who attended Ivy League schools and wore Brooks Brothers suits. He always felt like something of an outsider.
One night at dinner, he told us he'd seen the resume of a man who had applied for a job in the accounting department at his firm. "A college graduate, very impressive," he told us. Then the man came in for an interview with my father's boss. "I saw him walk into the office," recalled my father. "He was a Negro. A Brooks Brothers Negro." The phrase, which sounds so offensive to today's ears, was my father's way of saying that the man was supremely qualified. Dad's voice turned hard. "They told him there weren't any openings." That was all he said, but I could tell he was seething inside. I knew he identified with the man, that he recognized him as both qualified and discriminated against.
My father wasn't a hero for the books that day; he didn't stand up to his boss. But in his own quiet way, he had taught us about injustice. Years later, when I heard Martin Luther King say those powerful words from the book of Amos-"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream"-I thought of my father and the man he had told us about. My father had helped us see the world from the perspective of people who suffer. And it happened because he took the time to sit at the dinner table and talk to us about his day. Spiritual nurturing happens just that way, when ordinary dads share their everyday experiences. And no expert can take their place.