The best life lessons on parenting

The buckle on my favorite cowboy belt broke apart that morning, and I presented the remnants to my father. He surveyed the damage and announced, “I think it’s a goner, Johnny.”

I don’t remember why that belt was such a vital part of my fashion ensemble, but the thought of appearing in my second-grade class without it had me nearly apoplectic. Dad dropped me off at school, and with slumped shoulders, I shuffled off to class.

Illustrations by John P. Weiss

My father was an administrative law judge, and his work involved long daily commutes. The crickets were in full song by the time Dad made his way back home each night.

He would spend the remainder of his evenings correcting my homework and reading. Before dawn, he would drive off to repeat the ritual.

An investment in pure love

A few hours after dropping me off at school that day, the hurly-burly of class activity was interrupted by a loud knocking. Our teacher opened the door, and there he stood, with a brand-new cowboy belt in hand.

Smiling broadly, I ran to the door. “Here you go, Johnny,” he said, handing me the belt and with it a lesson about love and sacrifice.

It had been a rare day off for my father, and he no doubt had better things to do than shop for cowboy belts. Yet, he focused on me, knowing that no errand or leisure activity could trump an investment in pure love.

Dad’s simple act of kindness was just one more brick laid in the foundation of my childhood development. A foundation made of love, discipline, sacrifice, and character.

Many well-intentioned parents today dive into their careers, spend thousands on daycare, invest in private schools and save for their children’s college funds. All of these things are useful, but it’s the early years of parental role-modeling and interaction that matter most.

Fatherly lessons on life

Not a week went by without fatherly lessons on life. I recall Melinda, the developmentally disabled girl, who needed a ride home after school. Dad offered to take her. We pulled into her driveway, and I was instructed to walk her to the door, “like a gentleman.” The lesson learned: Treat women with respect.

There was Ted Strollo, a homeless immigrant who was struck by a car. Dad came to his aid, brought him to our home to recuperate and found him a low-cost apartment.

Every weekend, we visited “Mr. Strollo” to drop off snacks, socks, and magazines. Mostly, we would just talk; he reminisced about the old country. Driving home, Dad explained that the elderly are often forgotten and their wisdom untapped. The lesson learned: People matter, and should be treated with dignity.

Whenever undercharged for groceries, Dad would always drive back to the store to pay the difference. For me, it was a lesson about ethics.

My father was always reading, and the connection between books and his vast intellect was not lost on me. Our living room library contained endless shelves of books. The Harvard Classics, history, politics, art and more. The lesson: Feed your mind.

During my college years, Dad’s guiding hand-penned weekly letters. Reports on the home front, advice, newspaper clippings, and the underlying message — I love you and care about you. I kept all his letters.

Following college and graduate school, I pursued a career in law enforcement, married and had a son named Conner.

Building a foundation

Whenever we visited “the Judge,” as we affectionately referred to my father, dinner discussions often focused on societal issues.

I used to share my frustrations in dealing with people who refuse to take personal responsibility for their lives. As a police officer, I faced desperate parents who pleaded with me to do something about their delinquent children. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the problem should have been addressed long ago when they were too busy putting their own needs ahead of their children’s.

Not that it’s easy. After Conner was born, I discovered the challenges of sleep deprivation, dirty diapers, reduced free time and relentless fatigue. Plans to read to my baby boy were replaced by communal naps. Shift work didn’t help, and I began to wonder how anyone could muster the energy to parent as my father had.

Gradually, I learned the art of juggling my time and responsibilities. I made time to go to the park and read nightly stories. Bad behavior was corrected, and I insisted on good manners. All of this took time, but I was building a foundation, just like my father did.

A dilemma

One day, while cleaning Pop-Tart crumbs off the floor, Conner ran upstairs with a dilemma. His belt had broken, and he didn’t have another to wear.

It was a school day for Conner and a much needed day off for me. I told him that I would buy a new belt on the weekend. Conner traipsed downstairs, clearly disappointed. As I stood there, Pop-Tart crumbs in hand, it hit me. I buckled Conner in the car, and we headed out.

Even at 5 years old, Conner was perceptive enough to know whenever I deviated from our usual morning route.

“Daddy, where are you going?” he asked.

“To buy you a cowboy belt, my little Pop-Tart … to buy you a cowboy belt.”

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Thanks for reading.

(Above post adapted from my article: Best Parenting Is Done by Setting An Example – San Jose Mercury News, May 19, 2004).