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Becoming a better dad, one push-up at a time

Posted August 18

I’ve always been pretty good at school and work, consistently getting top grades or exceeding performance expectations. I get upset with myself when I don’t perform well.

So, it came as quite a shock to me one day to realize that I was barely cutting it as a father.

If someone were to give me a grade for my fathering, I don’t think I could expect much above a C, maybe a B-minus on good days. I wasn't completely failing as a dad, but I finally accepted the fact that I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to become a great dad and exceed the expectations that my wonderful father had set for me.

So, late last year, I set a nebulous goal to become a better father.

For the first few weeks, I mostly noticed how impatient and negative I actually was with my kids. I realized just how much change I needed, and that realization was depressing.

I was frozen. It wasn’t too dissimilar from the weight loss goal I had set the previous year.

Being a religious man, I took some time during the Christmas holidays to meditate and pray for help, for some path forward toward a kinder, gentler me. Then, one day at work, I had a small breakthrough — an answer to my prayer. I went to a “lunch and learn” session (which I usually skip because, of course, I’m busy trying to exceed performance expectations) and learned about a concept I had never heard of before: “the one push-up challenge.”

The idea of the “one push-up challenge” (originally proposed by Stephen Guise) is to start with the smallest goal you can imagine and then consistently achieve that goal for at least a month, until you’ve built up a habit. For example, if you want to get more exercise, start with a literal one push-up goal. That is, get your fat face on the floor every single day and do at least one push-up. Do more if you want, but at least do that one push-up every single day for a month.

The principle, of course, applies to non-health-related goals as well. So at the lunch meeting, I wrote down my one push-up goal for becoming a better father — something I knew I could do every single day. My simple goal was to say one positive or nice thing to each of my four children every day for at least a month.

As I drove home from work that day, I found myself thinking about each of my kids and coming up with the nice thing I would say to them. I started with simple things like: “You did a great job coloring that picture,” or “I love you because you like to play chess with me.” I made a point to try to accomplish my goal in my first interaction with each child, either first thing in the morning or as soon as I got home from work.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

As the days passed and as I stuck consistently to my unremarkable one push-up goal, I noticed something remarkable happening: I was becoming a better dad. There were several days that month where I didn’t say a single negative or unkind thing to any of my kids. But most days I was simply more positive than I was negative. By the end of the month, I saw real improvement in myself as a father, however small it might have been. And my kids noticed it as well.

One day, my 4-year-old daughter leaned over to a friend of ours and said: "My dad really is a good dad. Every day he tells us something he loves about each of us. … I don't hear him say something he loves about my mom, though."

I guess I still have some push-ups to do.

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