Parenting Lessons from My Irish Father-in-Law

He gave my boys their first bite of chocolate and their first pint and taught me how to be a grandmother along the way.

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The first time I left my eldest child, I was to go to a wedding, overnight. The celebration was obligatory, and I was a wreck. I was worried beyond all reason that something would happen to my 13-month-old baby and truly did not want to abandon him for an hour let alone 24 hours. My husband convinced me that I had to learn to leave him and that my father-in-law, my son's grandfather, would care for him, perhaps not exactly like I would, but my son would be in good hands. When I came home, all I can say is that both sets of hands, big and small, were covered in chocolate.  

My son had learned a new word, “choc,” thereby increasing his vocabulary to four words. He couldn't say Granddad, but he could say “choc.” My husband could see that I was apoplectic and talked me down off the ledge (for the record, I wasn't going to jump, I was going to push my father-in-law) and when my father-in-law saw my astonishment at feeding chocolate to a baby, he explained, with his small-village Irish brogue, in all seriousness, that Cadburys made their chocolate buttons so small in order for tiny hands to be able to successfully manage them. Cadburys, he was implying, knew better what my child should eat than I did; I don't remember that I took that well.

This is what my FIL has done to my children. He has dressed them in each others’ clothing and never noticed. They are not twins. He has put them in each others’ diapers so that the younger child was swimming in one much too large for him and the older child was an unholy mess. See above, they are still not twins. I lost the battle with chocolate and to this day he arrives at my doorstep from Europe with one suitcase of clothing and another filled with candy. One weekend when he looked after my children (I know, I know, but my Grandmother was turning 90), he took them to McDonalds, more than once, in the same day, and although I never got him to fess up, I found the Happy Meal Toys.

He helped my 11 year old dye his brown hair bright blond, with permanent color, and it took two rounds at the hairdresser to get his hair brown enough to return to school in September. My FIL has taken my boys fishing, played soccer, cricket, golf, and American football even though he has no idea how to throw a football, or even how to hold it. He’s taken them bike riding and fruit picking. He has taught them to plant vegetables and bet on horses.  

He has laughed with them at Tom and Jerry and sung along with Barney He has run after soccer balls by the hour as my boys practiced shot after shot, usually missing the goal entirely. He has taken them to parks and zoos and movies and playgrounds. He has taken them river rafting, which is all the more heroic because he doesn't know how to swim. When they were tiny he would rise with them, long before the sun, sneak them out of their bed and crib so quietly that as my husband and I slept. We never even heard him put them in their double stroller and leave for the park. Before they returned, yep, they had had McDonald’s. There would be syrup in their hair, bits of pancake stuck to their clothing, and I would have slept until 9 a.m. My FIL gave them their first chocolate and their first pint, and he was there for everything in between. And here we are nearly 20 years later and my children, my very grown up children, wait by the door when he arrives, walk him to the car as he leaves, begging him to tell them when he will return.

When my sons were visiting colleges, my FIL came along on the trips with us. This is a man who barely graduated high school and whose education comes very much from another era. My boys were excited about the prospect of college, but their true appreciation for the opportunity that was being placed in front of them came when they saw the majesty of American universities through my FIL’s eyes. He gave them the gift of perspective. To them this was one more step on the path of their lives, albeit the most exciting one; to him it was beyond imagination.

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