My dad was emotionally unavailable and non-communicative. He neither talked with my brother and me nor played with us. He was cold, grouchy, moody, and impatient. He had grown up with an abusive, alcoholic father and coped by living his life inside a protective bubble.
So, when I became a dad, I had no good role model to draw from.
When we do what comes to us naturally... without thought... I call this our "cruise control". For better or worse, it is when we allow ourselves to react to situations automatically and unconsciously in ways that were imprinted in our childhoods.
So, when I became a dad and my toddler son asked, "Dad! Do you wanna play cars?!" The first thought that came into my mind was, "Why in the hell would I want to get down on the floor and play with little cars?"
That was my cruise control. That was the voice of my dad. The voice of my childhood.
But I had decided long ago that I was going to be a better husband and father than my dad. So I never allowed myself to let my cruise control direct my behavior. Instead, I stop and asked myself questions like, "What sort of dad do I choose to be?" , "What sort of dad would I have wanted?", "What sort of dad does my son deserve?"
What my little boy heard was, "Sure, Buddy!"
I got down on the floor and chose a tiny car. At first, this felt awkward. As a child, I pretty much played alone. (My brother was 10 years older than me.) Before long, the awkwardness faded and I was engaged in playing with my son.
My son grew up with the dad I chose to be, not the one I was trained to be.
I took myself out of cruise control and switched to manual. It takes more effort to stop and make decisions intentionally but we don't all grow up with healthy, loving families. All of our neurotic behaviors happen in cruise control... without thought or intention. We can train ourselves to delay those automatic reactions long enough to ask ourselves, "What sort of spouse/parent/sibling/friend/professional/ employee/person do I want to be? Can I react in a way that makes me feel good about myself?"
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