1958 was a rough year to be a tree sparrow in China. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, launched the “Great Sparrow Campaign,” calling his countrymen to join him in exterminating these “pests.” According to Mao, the sparrows were eating too much grain and were holding China back from economic prosperity.
How were these birds killed?
Millions of men, women, and children took to the streets with cast iron pots, pans, and spoons. As flocks of the tiny birds flittered from one tree to another, attempting to roost and rest, dozens of people stood beneath the limbs and banged their cookware, forcing the birds to keep flying. The flock would zip over to another perch only to find another chorus of chaos. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow wasn’t designed for long-distance travel. After several hours of flapping their wings from one hostile place to another, they began falling from the sky, dead from exhaustion.
When people across China finally returned to their homes to fill their pots with soup, millions of birds littered the streets of China, evidence of Mao’s successful eradication by exhaustion campaign.
I met a friend for coffee a few weeks ago – a father of four children – and he looked like an almost dead tree sparrow. As long as I’ve known Ben, he’s raced from one activity to another at breakneck speed. He works in management for a local manufacturing plant. He’s a smart, fun-loving, idealistic guy who loves his family and friends. But he’s always tired and discouraged. The first thing most people hear when they meet Ben is an apology for being late. He showed up fifteen minutes past the time we’d set for coffee.
Ben speaks about his life as if he’s the target of some external “eradication by exhaustion” campaign, as if he doesn’t have control over his life and schedule. I’ve known Ben for about fifteen years. In that span of time, his son has moved from wearing an oversized helmet on a t-ball field to playing ball in college. His daughter has gone from just figuring out that boys exist to dating one. And his wife has transitioned from a stay-at-home mom to a full-time receptionist. These past fifteen years have been dynamic and formative for the people around Ben. They have felt like an accidental blur to him.
Most of us fathers want to make the most of these years our children are in our homes. We have dreams of spending time outside as a family, enjoying great conversations around the dinner table, and taking them on trips to see national parks, oceans, and historical sites. We don’t want to just go through those years—We want to fully engage them. Yet, with all these strong desires and ideas, it’s so easy to miss the simple reality that it all takes time. There is no way to enjoy our children, teach them our values, and give them the life experiences we want them to have apart from taking control of our schedules and spending time with them.
There’s just something about how God designed fatherhood—we dads play an indispensable role in grounding our children’s identities. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the relationship that Theodore Roosevelt had with his father, and how his dad made an indelible impact on his life. In his book, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, Nathan Miller writes about Roosevelt’s father:
“No one had a greater influence upon [Theodore Roosevelt’s] namesake. By example and instruction, he imbued Theodore, Jr., with a strong sense of moral values and remained an almost palpable presence at his side long after his death at the age of forty-six.”
“Palpable presence” – what a target to aim at, and what a beautiful way to describe the power a father has to establish his children’s sense of self, pass on a vision for doing life well, and give them a sense that they are never absolutely alone.
We can’t stay insanely busy and hope to become a palpable presence in our children’s lives. A friend reminded me of this a few years ago. Mike told me about how he’d grown up in a poor family in Omaha, Nebraska. Mike is a hardworking, industrious man. When he was in his late twenties, he took a large risk and purchased a small company in Grand Island, Nebraska. The risk paid off, and three years later he owned one of the fastest growing, largest grossing companies in the Midwest. He became a multi-millionaire in the span of about four years. Mike loved his wife and kids, and understood what his priorities should be. But, the ever-expanding demands at work sucked up all his time. During those first few years of success, he spent about seventy hours a week at the office. When he was at home, he’d be working in his home office. His wife and two teenage children came in second place to his work. They sensed this.
Mike justified his absence from his family with the idea that a man’s primary responsibility is to provide. When he was young, his parents couldn’t afford to buy him new shoes or pay for camp. He was now able to meet not only his family’s needs, but also their every whim and want. In his mind, he was doing well as a husband and father.
Mike explained how this misconception came crashing down with one statement from his son. Here’s the story from Mike’s perspective:
“When Greg was fourteen, all he wanted to do was play baseball. He always had a glove on one hand and a ball in the other. When I came home from work, he’d be pitching baseballs through a tire out back or hitting them into the field. As soon as I’d pull into the driveway each night, Greg would ask me to play ball with him.” Mike swallowed hard again as he said, “I said ‘no’ most of the time.”
Mike continued, “One night, after brushing my son off, I went into my office, sat down at my desk and felt guilty. Then I thought of the perfect solution. I went online and ordered thousands of dollars of baseball training equipment and videos. Within two weeks, my son had enough baseball gear to make a college team jealous. He had a pitching machine, batting cage, bases, throwing nets, and all sorts of strengthening devices. As I clicked the ‘place order’ tab on the website, I felt like a good dad again. I’d made it possible for my son to play baseball from the time he got home from school until he went to bed.”
Greg played with that gear for one afternoon, maybe two, and then completely lost interest. In fact, he seemed to lose interest in baseball altogether. For a month, that equipment sat in the shed. When Mike arrived home from work, Greg would be playing video games or watching television.
Mike told me, “Every night, I got more and more upset. Finally, I came home one night from work, and Greg was on the couch watching TV. I just lost it. I yelled, ‘Greg, get up and come with me!’”
“I marched him outside, opened the door to the shed, and pointed at all that gear. ‘Do you know how much this equipment cost me? And you’re haven’t touched it in weeks. I thought you wanted to play baseball?”
Mike swallowed hard and wiped a tear from each cheek before telling me what happened next.
“Greg stood there with his hands in his pocket, looking down at the floor while I lectured him. When I finished, Greg was quiet for a few moments. Then, without looking up at me, he said, “Dad, I just wanted to play catch with you.”
I appreciated Mike’s willingness to be honest about that story. It was a warning to me, a busy father. I can’t simply desire the right things when it comes to my kids. I’ve got to do them. This is going to take cutting out some of the pots, pans, clanging, and banging in order to make time for the important things in life. It’s going to take ownership of my schedule. It’s going to take time together with my children.
As fathers, this is the only way to get there.
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 Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003) pg. 32