Fatherhood: A College President Reflects

Dr. Lawrence M. Schall, president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, writes a guest post today on fatherhood. During a recent winter vacation with his now-adult kids, as they recounted the teenage years, they waded into a “quagmire of fact, fiction, truth and lies.” His story follows:  

Over the holidays, I was able to spend a week with my two older children, ages 32 and 27. We were missing two others, including my stepdaughter who has decided Thailand is the perfect place to live. We found a house to rent in the high desert outside Tucson shaped like a crescent moon. Not a straight wall to be found. We managed not to do what we call “the cruise thing” where everybody pretty much goes their separate ways until dinner, so there were lots of moments through the week where good and meaningful conversation just happened.

Fatherhood: When a dad sits down to have an honest discussion about the teenage years with his young adult kids, the truth emerges.

Life rarely turns out the way one expects it to. My life, including my role as a father over the past 34 years, like that crescent-shaped house, certainly hasn’t followed any predictable lines. What I can say with some confidence is that I’ve remained committed to trying to be a good father, during those times when that came easy and also when it didn’t.

My memory seems to be fading gently as I age, but apparently my kids’ memories are as sharp as tacks. It’s astonishing what they recall about my parenting aptitude, at least the weak spots in that skill set.

One of the subjects we talked about during our week together was dad as a bachelor. After their mother and I divorced, we shared custody. My kids have always referred to the three years between my first marriage (13 years together) and my current marriage (18 years going on 19) as the “in between time.” During that “in between,” they were introduced to one or two (maybe three depending on whose memory you trust) women I was dating. My daughter, in particular, recalls in excruciating detail every minute I forced her to join us.

“Dad, what were you possibly thinking when you took us to Baltimore to visit the Aquarium and spend a night in one hotel room with that horrid woman and her completely obnoxious son?” Now, it doesn’t seem remotely possible to me that I actually opted to have this outing, except for the one room thing. If I graciously did take everybody to see that amazing aquarium, I suspect I wouldn’t have sprung for a second room. Have a mentioned I am very cost conscious? As for the “horridness” of this person, whom I only can vaguely picture today, I think it was just a matter of seeing me with another woman for the first time. I do sort of recall her son was a bit on the overactive side, but I am also pretty sure he could have been an angel and not passed muster.

I am not sure why the starry desert night inspired them to tell me all the things they did back then, but it did. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around we had arrived at their teen years. We were having a perfectly relaxing day, looking forward to cooking a meal together to celebrate. My wife prepared a fabulous broiled fish and the kids concocted a series of vegetarian delights. I set the table, lit the candles and, just as we sat down to eat, my oldest, soon to become a parent himself, asked me something along the lines of “Had I told him the truth when he was a teenager about whether I had inhaled in my youth?” From that little question, we were off and running into the quagmire of fact, fiction, truth, and lies.

Clearly, by the time my kids hit the teenage stage it appears I trusted them way too much. As they entered the last few years of high school, they say we often left them alone in the house for a weekend night or two. Despite looking me straight in the eye and promising they wouldn’t think of having anyone over to the house while we were away, they did exactly that on more than one occasion. I instantly remembered coming home one weekend after my wife and I were newly married. She swore to me that someone had been sleeping in our bed. I told her that couldn’t possibly be the case. Now I know it was exactly the case. Being so wrong is never fun, but all these years later, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. We have all grown up a lot.

I’ve wondered afterwards what all these questions were about. Was there something they wanted to know or understand beyond exploring my parental abilities long ago? Perhaps as they have become full-fledged grown-ups, they are beginning to reflect on their own lives as parents, their own dreams and aspirations.

Before we went to sleep, a few flakes of snow appeared on the ground. When we awoke New Year’s Day, the desert all around us was coated by a glorious blanket of white. My wife and I left the kids alone, sleeping, and took a hike up in the snow-covered desert mountains. As I walked, I couldn’t stop thinking of my son becoming a father. He will be a good dad, I know.


Larry Small

Dr. Lawrence M. Schall is president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College and has earned doctoral degrees in law and education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Early in his career, Schall practiced civil rights law in Philadelphia. He currently serves on the boards of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the Lovett School, and is Chair of the Board of The East Lake Foundation.

His writing on The Huffington Post may be found here.



Photo Credit: (moon photo) Beth Woodrum

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Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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