By Chris Palmer

When my wife, Gail, and I decided to start a family, I knew nothing about raising children. I was, however, aware that they could be demanding and stress-inducing. As the youngest of four boys, I had experienced a rather stressful childhood myself. More than anything, I was terrified of failing. I wanted my kids to be happy and successful.

Despite my misgivings, we forged ahead and gave birth to three daughters.

Working diligently to build my career as a wildlife filmmaker meant traveling extensively and spending a lot of time away from my family. At home, I wanted to be a capable, loving, and effective father, but the girls sometimes kept me at a distance. I recall one night when Gail and I put our daughters to bed and I tried to cuddle with each one.

“Would you like to snuggle?” I asked my girls, all of them under 10 years of age and each of them adorable, loving, and beautiful in her own way. “No,” they answered, one by one, unknowingly inflicting wounds to my heart. They would only snuggle with their mom. It hurt to be left out.

Full of self-doubt and worried that I was failing as a father, I wondered whether my own father had ever felt the same way. I wanted to be a better father, and I wondered if I was devoting sufficient time to parenting. For a month, I kept a log of everything I did during the day and how long it took me. I discovered a massive discrepancy between how I spent my time and what I claimed was important to me. I would glibly tell people that my family was my top priority but, when I analyzed my schedule, I found that I devoted 90 percent of my time to my job. I was a workaholic.

I yearned to be a father who wasn’t simply an awkward appendage to the nuclear group, but a pivotal and integrated member. The feelings of rejection roiling inside me prompted me to start thinking of innovative things I could do to play a more significant and meaningful role in my daughters’ lives.

I became a student of what makes an effective parent. I resolved to learn all I could about what it means to be a loving and capable father. I undertook a deliberate, self-imposed program of study, reading book after book on parenting.

I also took every opportunity to talk to other fathers about what they did and didn’t do, and what they found worked and didn’t work. And, of course, I observed other families and drew my own conclusions about which fathering behaviors produced good results and which ones didn’t.

One of my first insights was that fathering was a skill I could learn (like cooking or playing golf), not something that just happened to a man when he had children. It wasn’t a fixed, inborn talent, but rather something that could be taught, acquired, implemented, and constantly improved upon. Great parents are made, not born.

New Traditions

Inspired by my studies of parenting, and with Gail’s support, I introduced new traditions and family rituals to help build a strong family and set up our kids to succeed. These were all constructive things we would do as a family that our children could rely on to happen, so that they would grow up with a strong sense of rootedness, love, and trust.

When children know that there are certain things they can count on, they feel more confident that they can excel in the world rather than be defeated by it. Our children knew that they could always come home for support, encouragement, and guidance. They knew they would be safe. Whatever madness was happening in the world, our children knew their family was a secure place of trust, sanity, and love.

Unfortunately, not all of my attempts to create rituals worked out. I could never get my daughters to buy into the idea of a regular “Date with Dad,” during which I would spend one-on-one time with a daughter during an evening doing anything she wanted.

One successful idea I came up with was to write letters to my daughters every night when I was away traveling and making films. I invested a lot of time and effort in these letters and wrote hundreds of them over the years. I saw that my daughters really liked them. The letters were a way I could build a meaningful connection with my children. I wrote to them about all sorts of things, such as how to give a dinner party, the importance of having a rich vocabulary, and stories about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

When I was away from home, my nightly letters were an attempt to get the attention of my daughters and not be “out of sight, out of mind.” I soon realized that the letters were a wonderful way to tell my daughters things and pass on knowledge, love, and wisdom that I might find difficult to do face-to-face. Like a lot of men, I wasn’t very good at expressing my feelings verbally. I found it easier to do in letters.

Another family ritual was to hold a weekly family meeting with a written agenda. Our family members took turns chairing and running the meetings, which usually lasted about half an hour. The agenda would contain perhaps 15 items relating to family matters, such as upcoming vacations, organizing the trips for the next day’s multiple soccer games, deciding how to organize chores more fairly, going over New Year’s resolutions, providing encouragement, and sharing “rocks.”

The rocks agenda item involved each family member stating the one or two most important projects she faced in the coming week, such as an exam, repairing a frayed relationship, or completing an unfinished task.

The encouragement agenda item was important. During encouragement, everyone in the family, in turn, offered encouragement (not necessarily praise) to every member of the family for doing something right.

For example, I might say, “Kim, you worked really hard on that calculus homework last night, and I commend you for that.” Or, “Tina, you lost the tennis match 0-8 but you didn’t give up and kept focused until the end.”

Encouragement is a mechanism to get everyone to focus on what is going right in the family. The point was to avoid the natural tendency in people and families to focus on what is going wrong.

My daughters often resisted these family meetings, but I insisted. They enabled us to communicate more effectively. They helped to maintain order in what otherwise could have been a chaotic household. And they gave our daughters the experience of organizing and leading meetings.

11 Family Rituals and Traditions for Bonding:

  1. Over about a nine-month period when my children were young, we created a Family Mission Statement. Everyone contributed to it. We then framed it and hung it on the wall in a prominent place in the house, so it would be a constant reminder to us all.
  2. Every year on January 1, we each wrote our goals for the coming year. I collected them all and made copies for everyone, so that we all knew each other’s goals and could help each other achieve them. My daughters are in their 30s now, but I still collect everyone’s New Year’s resolutions!
  3. I keep a family journal (with a particular focus on gratitude), and every Christmas Day I give each member of the family a book of about 200-300 pages chronicling everything of interest that has gone on in the family that year.
  4. We started a “predictions” tradition, in which every member of the family makes a secret prediction on January 1 for the coming year. On the following Christmas Day, we open the sealed envelopes and see how accurate the predictions have been. As we go around the table, smiles and laughter fill the room.
  5. On each child’s birthday, I hid dollars around the family room equal in number to their age, such as 12 dollar bills on a 12th birthday.
  6. Also on their birthdays, I developed a treasure hunt for each birthday gift. Following funny, cryptic clues, often poems, the birthday girl went around the house to find the hidden gifts.
  7. I often bought T-shirts for the whole family with a family photo on them, or with the words, “The Shearer-Palmer Family,” emblazoned across the front.
  8. I did science experiments regularly with my daughters.
  9. I took my daughters on filming trips to Alaska, Tahiti, Barbados, the Bahamas and other fun and educational places. While the “Date with Dad” idea may have fizzled, I found other ways to spend time one-on-one with the girls.
  10. I instigated daily sessions of something I called “teacher/student,” in which my kids and I would reverse roles and they became the teacher. They could pick any topic (usually something they had learned in school) and had to teach it to me.
  11. Finally, a crucially important thing I had to learn was how to say, “I love you.” I learned from a book on fathering that it was important for children to hear their dads say that to them. I disciplined myself to say it. It wasn’t easy.

Lessons Learned

As I gained the skills to be a better father, I learned to apply those same skills to my professional work. This helped me become a better filmmaker, nonprofit executive, and professor, because my leadership abilities improved. I kept my promises, made more of them, and spoke more clearly. I listened more actively and was kinder. I became more self-aware and less self-absorbed. All of the qualities that made a good father also made for a good leader. I slowly learned to live more intentionally–to decide what person I wanted to be and to commit to achieving that goal, acknowledging that I will forever be a work in progress.

Despite my initial worries about having kids, it turned out that having children was the best and wisest decision I ever made.

My children bring extraordinary meaning and purpose to my life. They helped move me from being a selfish, egocentric male to a person who is more sensitive and open to listening, more willing to apologize for mistakes, and more loving, empathetic and generous. My daughters have brought out the best in me, and I hope that Gail and I have done the same for them.

Being a parent led me to think carefully about how to create a meaningful legacy that will survive me and will be my gift to the future I will not see. I want “my memory to be for a blessing.” I want to leave more than just money. I hope to ripple into the future, just as my parents have rippled through me. (Rippling, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s word, refers to passing parts of our self on to others and helps to reduce the dread of death.)

I read Laura Roser’s outstanding book Your Meaning Legacy and it inspired me to think about what I want to pass on when I die, especially my non-financial assets like love, wisdom, beliefs, and values.

As a result, I’m in the process of producing family memories, expressions of love, a tangible record of my life, a video message, and an ethical will.

An ethical will (also called a legacy letter) is a way to convey ethical values, wisdom, and love between the generations. It contains personal reflections, values, and ideals.

The idea behind creating a meaningful legacy is to capture my essence as a person and my vision for the future, so that future generations (my heirs) can benefit from it. In this way, I hope to live beyond my death and continue to support my family even after I am gone. My death does not end my responsibility to those I leave behind.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind: In those whom they have blessed they live a life again.”

In other words, after I die, I can live in others by what I gave. When I am no longer here, you can find me in my daughters and grandchildren, and in my friends.

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Chris Palmer is an author, speaker, former professor, and a wildlife filmmaker. He serves on the Board of Montgomery Hospice, is writing a book on death and dying, is a hospice volunteer, and runs a death and dying group for the Bethesda Metro Area Village. During his filmmaking career, he has swum with dolphins and whales, come face-to-face with sharks and Kodiak bears, camped with wolf packs, and waded hip-deep through Everglade swamps. Over the past thirty-five years, he has spearheaded the production of more than 300 hours of original programming for prime-time television and the IMAX film industry, work that won him and his colleagues many awards, including two Emmys and an Oscar nomination. He wrote about wildlife filmmaking in his two controversial books, Shooting in the Wild and Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker. His latest book is College Teaching at Its Best, and his next book is about success and how to achieve it. He has also written books on parenting and on how to succeed after graduating from college. In 2004, Chris joined the full-time faculty of American University where he taught filmmaking and founded the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. He also created a popular class called Design Your Life for Success. He retired from AU in 2018. Chris and his wife, Gail, have lived in Bethesda, MD, for 45 years and raised their three daughters there. They now have eight grandchildren.  Chris was a stand-up comic for five years appearing in venues all over the Washington DC metro area.