Dear Son: This family is not a democracy
I got a letter in the mail the other day, dated 1962. It was from a man named Ralph, written to a boy named Dave who was 15 years old at the time. Ralph was a man who had quit school in the seventh grade during the Great Depression so that he could go to work and help feed the family.After the Depression, of course, came the big one, World War II, and Ralph was in the first wave of soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy. He fought his way across Europe and came home and went to work. He soon married and started a family, and had two sons.The boys were good kids, dutiful and hard workers. They loved sports and hunting and fishing, and they got good grades. As they entered their teens, however, the seeds of rebellion began to sprout, and Ralph realized that it was time to explain the parameters of his relationship with his sons.So he sat down at a manual typewriter and pecked out a letter to his sons, a letter so brief and yet so meaningful that I must share it with you today. As you look around in today’s world and see thousands of parents struggling in their relationships with their children, bribing their kids with expensive toys and trying to be their kids’ best friends, think of Ralph and think of this letter.Dear Son:As long as you live in this house you will follow the rules. When you have your own house, you can make your own rules. In this house we do not have a democracy. I did not campaign to be your father. You did not vote for me. We are father and son by the grace of God, and I accept that privilege and awesome responsibility. In accepting it, I have an obligation to perform the role of a father. I am not your pal. Our ages are too different. We can share many things, but we are not pals. I am your father. This is 100 times more than what a pal is. I am also your friend, but we are on entirely different levels. You will do, in this house, as I say, and you cannot question me because whatever I ask you to do is motivated by love. This will be hard for you to understand until you have a son of your own. Until then, trust me. Your fatherOne son decided he wanted to be a professional golfer, and he went to the golf course every day to practice. Vietnam got in the way, and all those days of jump-shooting ducks and swinging on ruffed grouse came in handy, because not many helicopter door gunners survived 180 combat missions. As a golfer, he played in six U.S. Opens and three Senior U.S. Opens. Not a bad career.The other son, the more defiant one, turned his creative mind to engineering, and you’ve seen his handiwork. You know those videos you see on the Internet, where the al-Qaida terrorists are planting a roadside bomb? They get busted by the Apache helicopter hovering two miles away, and they’re trying to roll under the truck and then the truck disappears in a huge explosion, and the world has nine fewer terrorists because the younger son did the math.Someone else’s son wasn’t raised as well, and when the old man and his wife retired to spend their winters in Florida, some skinny little crackhead decided he was going to break in and rob the old couple. Dave got a call from the cops in Florida, who said they’d never seen anything like it. Ralph, at 80 years old, had beaten the criminal so severely that he was within a breath or two of dying. “There were loops of blood on the ceiling,” said the cop. The crackhead spent 47 days in intensive care.The old man died a couple of years ago, at peace with himself and his legacy. The sons live on, and their children are good citizens, hard-working and contributing their graces to the world. They’re well-mannered and polite, humble, charming and tougher than a two-dollar steak. Personally, I decided long ago that I wasn’t going to be buddies with my kids. I have never struggled with my role as their father. “Buddies” and “pals” are the kind of people that get you into trouble, offering kids their first toke of pot or coming up with the bright idea to break windows or steal things. No, I am my boys’ father, and they know damn well what the consequences will be if they misbehave.If I do nothing more in this life than raise those boys to be good citizens, then that’s good enough. But I see many other parents struggling to find their way, wavering between being friends with their children so that they might open up and confide in their parents, or feeling guilty about not spending time with them and trying to make up for it with a wealth of material objects. If you haven’t defined your role as a parent, if you’re having difficulties raising your children, read Ralph’s letter. Heck, it’s short enough that you can memorize it. Know that your responsibility is awesome and the stakes are high. Trust that you are given great authority and it takes courage to accept it. While others are weak, you may be strong, and you may not be popular as a result. A family is a family, not a democracy, and a father is a father, not a politician.Remember that.
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