On Taking Your Children Seriously

This Father’s Day, I decided to give my son a gift. The same one I got from my dad.

Let’s take a step back in time. It was 1985, the year of “We Are the World,” “Back to the Future” and New Coke. There was a 6-year-old boy in Dalton, Ga., who didn’t know much about all of that. He was too busy obsessing over dinosaurs.

I was as certain as a newly minted kindergarten graduate can be that I was going to grow up to be a paleontologist. Even before hitting the first grade, I even knew how to spell paleontologist. Why be satisfied with C-A-T when you can go 14 full letters?

My dad noticed. He and my mom were both good about noticing such things, even if he was traveling for work a lot at that time.

But one benefit of all that travel was seeing and learning about a lot of other places, which in the pre-internet age wasn’t a mere matter of a few clicks. Oh, and he racked up a lot of frequent flier miles.

So one day he told me that he was taking me to Chicago because it had a museum with lots of dinosaur bones – fossils, to the initiate of Westwood Elementary – called the Field Museum of Natural History.

I was ecstatic. Along with seeing some actual fossils, I would get to ride on an airplane.

That duality, the main reason for the trip alongside other exciting aspects, helped stamp it in my memory. We didn’t go only to the Field Museum, but to the nearby planetarium. We ate fried ice cream, an oxymoron my young mind struggled to reconcile, at the “Taste of Chicago.” We called Mama when I felt homesick.

In the end, the nearest I came to a career working with ancient objects was writing for the dead-tree media. Both of my parents did much more for me along the way, and still do. But I never forgot the importance my dad had placed on something that was important to me, something I thought I wanted to do when I grew up. Taking children’s thoughts and dreams seriously, really seriously, doesn’t have to be hard. But it is also easy not to do.

Seriousness is not a word our culture associates anymore with dads. The archetype swung awfully hard from Atticus Finch to Al Bundy. If you hear “Dad” and “seriously” together in today’s popular culture, it’s probably from an annoyed, eye-rolling teen. But we need dads to be serious about their families, and vice versa.

Now, taking one’s children seriously doesn’t have to mean traveling several hundred miles, or spending several hundred dollars, or both. But when I became a dad, I knew “the trip” was something I wanted to adopt.

Three years ago, when my older son turned 9, I told him the two of us were going to take a trip, and he could help pick the destination based on an interest of his. He surprised everyone by announcing: “I want to go to Hollywood, because I want to make movies when I grow up.”

I thought about silently cursing Tyler Perry for not yet opening his Atlanta studio to public tours. But then, Fernbank Museum also opened its doors too late for my dad to save some money. I said we’d make it work. We did.

This year, with my younger son the budding architect, the family tradition has come full circle. The first skyscraper, the erstwhile world’s tallest building, the longtime home of Frank Lloyd Wright: It had to be Chicago.

I hope he remembers admiring the soaring towers rising up from the Chicago River, seeing the world from a hundred floors up, touring the house and studio where a genius worked. I hope he remembers a few other things along the way, too, just in case he spends as much time designing buildings as I have digging up bones.

I hope he remembers one day to take his own children’s thoughts and dreams seriously, too.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.

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