Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

I often think I should have jumped into the lake after him.

My son was 12 years old at the time, leaning a bit too far out when he cast his fishing rod. Maybe he did it on purpose.

When Zachary hit the lake he was only a foot from the boat dock, in water barely over his head, and easily within reach for me to pull him back up. There was no current, and with his swimming skills, he probably could have chosen to do a few laps to the floating dock and back, fully clothed, before he climbed out of the water.

Still, the thought of a missed opportunity nags at me. Even if it was an excess of caution, jumping in with him, with my wallet and phone in my pocket, would have been a chance for a symbolic gesture, a way to show him, “I’ve got your back.” The impression would have lasted forever.

Fatherhood, like life, is full of symbolic gestures. We tell our kids to “be careful” when they leave the house, knowing full well they either will or will not, regardless of the advice. We slip them “a few extra bucks” when they go out with friends or on a date, just to have a presence of some kind in the outing.

When we stop short in the car, our hand instinctively reaches out to shield the child next to us, even when we know he or she is protected by the seat belt harness and airbags.

There have been, and will be many more opportunities to show my love and support for the three precious souls God has entrusted to me. But as I watch them grow up I worry about giving them enough, or too much security.

An article in New York Magazine a couple of years ago posited that too much praising of your children can be detrimental to them in the long run. They’ll become overconfident, some child-shrinks warned, and/or learn to do things just to please other people, rather than to fulfill themselves.

As if parents don’t have enough on their heads, now comes the need to obsess over just the right amount of positive reinforcement. I don’t buy into the idea that too many pats on the back will leave dents. Build them strong, and they will be able to distinguish between the security of home and what is expected of them in a competitive world.

Being a parent is arguably the toughest job on earth, and getting tougher all the time. When our kids are holed up in their rooms simultaneously instant messaging, video chatting, playing video games and watching TV, do we admire their ability to multitask, or worry about cultivated ADD?

In our busy lives, are we letting Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, Adam Sandler and Borat have as much cultural impact on their lives as the preferred role models in their lives: rabbis, teachers and family members?

How well do we really know the peers they surround themselves with, and is it enough to know they come from good families?

I became a parent almost 16 years ago, and often feel as clueless today as I was then. There are plenty of user manuals for kids, some worth reading, others hammered out by crackpots who probably spoiled their own offspring while doing research and signing book deals.

As I wrote in a Jewish Week column a few weeks into this adventure of fatherhood, it is the least defined, and often most underappreciated family role.

A man who works long hours to keep a solid roof overhead, but never hugs or praises his children, may or may not be a good dad (though he’s, evidently, a hero to New York Magazine.) Some would say the emotional component is a mother’s territory. Others would place sentiment on equal footing with the material obligation.

In his recent memoir of life with his celebrity dad, Adam Nimoy writes that his father, Leonard, worked diligently, sometimes obsessively, to provide for his family, but like the stoic but efficient Spock character he played on TV, didn’t put much stock in bonding. Our impression is Adam would have preferred a dad who swept floors and had time to go to ballgames.

With so little expected of us, it’s easy to be a “good” dad. That’s why the extras can mean so much, and why missed opportunities can stand out in our memory.

Because sometimes, being a great dad means jumping into a lake.