The best advice I ever received as a father came in 1994 from an 8-year-old girl before I even had kids. My wife and I were having dinner at our friends’ home in Palo Alto—a married couple, both of whom were hard-driving, ambitious executives who regularly worked long hours, and their two delightfully candid elementary school-aged kids. As the conversation turned to work, Carol, the 8-year-old, blurted out, “My parents work all the time.” In response, our friend Mary said, “Well, if we didn’t work like this, you wouldn’t have all these nice things.” Carol looked her mom dead in the eyes and without missing a beat said matter-of-factly, “I’d rather have you.”
Suffice to say that this made for an awkward conversational segue, but Carol’s sentiment stuck with me as a guiding principle when I became a parent. Being present for our kids and making time for connection—not to be confused with helicoptering or micro-managing their every move—is the best thing we can do for our kids. I like to tell parents that pre-adolescents respond to them like puppy dogs—forever happy to have attention, willing to play whenever they are available, wagging their proverbial tails at parents’ presence. Adolescents, on the other hand, respond more like cats—aloof, unpredictable, hard to locate, not always coming when they are called, rubbing up against you or jumping into your lap on their terms. But kids at both stages need the same things: guidance, attention, discipline and love, none of which can be provided without requisite time.
Balancing work and family was hard enough in 1994 before the prevalence of today’s digital distractions—it’s a high-wire act now. But on this Father’s Day, consider the wisdom of Carol’s message and make time for the stuff that matters most to kids—time to eat together, time to talk, time to do stuff together, even time for what my friend calls “separate togetherness,” where family members do separate things (read, draw, cook, listen to music) but are physically together. Over the years, the time you spend creating connection builds the precious relationship capital to draw on—especially during adolescence—when you have to deliver tough love, reset expectations, or draw boundaries.