The Most Important Parenting Lessons I Learned from My Dad

By Kimberly Witt

One night when I was 16, I missed my midnight curfew. Thanks to my father’s response, that fateful night has become part of our family folklore.

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I was sitting in the front seat of my 1979 Monte Carlo talking with a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, watching the minutes tick by until midnight, and then beyond. I usually woke my parents when I got home, so I decided to tell a little white lie: that I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed and had forgotten to wake them.

But before I could even get home and use my alibi, I saw a bright pair of headlights approaching, driving steadily toward us down the deserted road. As those headlights got closer and closer, it felt like the blinding light was beaming directly into my rule-breaking soul.

“It’s probably my dad,” I joked.

But it was my dad—and it wasn’t a joke.

Dad’s dusty Buick came screeching to a stop beside my car. Inch by inch, he cranked down the car window. Palms sweaty, heart racing, I rolled down my window, too, and braced myself for a lecture.

But all Dad said was, “Kimberly, get your butt home.” Then, after that matter-of-fact directive, he rolled up the car window and drove away.

I did indeed get my butt home.

Those five words told me all I needed to know. My parents were worried and they cared enough to make sure I was okay and got home safely.

Unlike my father, I often say too much when it comes to parenting. (And I’m sure my teen sons wouldn’t disagree.) I worry about the perfect soundbite, the just-right encouraging text before an exam, the most memorable lecture when they’ve made a mistake.

But then I remember my dad.

Sometimes you can speak volumes with just five words.

This is one of many valuable parenting lessons I’ve learned from my Iowa farm-dwelling dad.

Like other farm kids in the 1980s, I learned the value of hard work and living on a tight budget. Whether it was dripping buckets of sweat while walking beans—the task of hand-weeding acres of crops—or traipsing out on rainy nights to collect nightcrawlers to sell to fishermen traveling to Lake Okoboji for the weekend, we all learned to pitch in and help the family.

I am a city dweller now, so my sons don’t get all the farm work experience that I did at their age. However, I have made sure they know how to scrub a toilet, pull backyard weeds, push the mower, and help in the kitchen. I’m not saying they do it all without complaining, but they know how and they do it. And that’s a start.

Out of all the things my father taught me, maybe the most important one was the importance of showing up for my kids. My dad was always there, whatever the occasion. It could be a Friday night in the middle of a busy harvest season, and he would be in the stands of our football stadium because I was cheering on the sidelines. He drove across the state to watch me perform at the All-State speech festival and offered encouraging words before I auditioned for college band scholarships.

Anytime I needed Dad, he was there—and it’s a comforting pattern that has followed me into adulthood. Just a few weeks ago, he and my mom pulled into my driveway with a truck full of Iowa dirt and boards from the dismantled corn crib, wood hewn by my great-great-grandfather, to build a raised bed vegetable garden in my yard. He’s still showing up for me, even though I’m a parent with my own teens now.

As my husband and I prepare to launch our sons into the world, I work hard to follow the example my father has set: to support and accept my kids and provide a safe landing place when they need it. I have learned to offer advice when it’s asked for and to try oh-so-hard to stay silent when it’s not. I want them to know, like my dad taught me, that I will love and forgive them through the difficult moments, and I will ask for forgiveness in the moments when I mess up.

Dad didn’t have to use a lot of words to let me know I was loved. He just showed up and loved me. And, surely, I can do the same.

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