I was reading Holly Spangler’s blog the other day about the impact of farm dads as she searched for favorite farm dad photos among her readers at our sister publication, Prairie Farmer in Illinois. One of the questions she posed in her blog, “What does your shadow look like?” as she discussed the impact of farming parents on their children and how our shadows are long and profound. It is a very interesting take on parenting, with that unique farm spin.
Now, with Father’s Day in our rearview mirror, I had time to reflect on Holly’s words and another interesting question that comes to me. “What does a farm dad sound like?”
Huh? What does that mean? Well, since my four-year-old going on 24-year-old son follows me around the farm, just as his older sisters and brother did at that same age, I find the same thing is true for him about what he hears. He repeats everything someone says to him, around him, within earshot of him, or under their breath about a quarter mile away. In other words, you have to watch your words.
This situation is nothing new to any parent. But on the farm, you work with your kids a lot. You might not think they are listening to you. In fact, you might believe that even if you shout at the top of your lungs, your teenager never hears a word that you say. I think they hear more than we think, and pick up everything we say and do, whether they are four years old or 15 years old. As a farm dad, it might not matter so much what you say. It might matter more sometimes what you don’t say. Here are a few scenarios I have come up with.
A cow smashes through the corral fence you just completed yesterday, tearing out posts and cattle panels as she did her damage. You look down at your four-year-old son, who is staring at you and curious about your reaction. He can tell you are unhappy by the look on your face, but at that moment it probably isn’t what you say that matters; it is what you don’t say (internal dialogue excluded).
Related: The gift of work ethic for farm kids
Your young daughter takes on a farm fence painting project for the first time. She has anxiously begged you to be allowed this responsibility and she took it on with all of the zeal of a U.S. Marine going into battle. But, most of the paint in the can ended up on her shirt or on the ground, with more than a few spots left to be painted on the fence. She turns to you and asks you how it looks. At that moment, it doesn’t matter so much what you say, but what you don’t say. “Looks good, honey,” you say with a smile. “You did great.”
Your son has been training on the tractor for some time. He believes he is finally ready to drive solo and help with fieldwork. You’ve gone over the safety stuff with him hundreds of times, but you worry that he isn’t prepared enough. You even enrolled him in tractor safety training courses, and he passed with flying colors. The fact is, he is ready and you aren’t. He says, “Dad, I can do this. I’ll be fine. Just let me do it.” At that moment, it isn’t important what you say, but it is important that you exhibit confidence in your son and reserve the doubts for yourself. What you don’t say to him is most important.
Related: Farm families, are you listening?
I have to say that I sorted finishing hogs with my Dad under less than ideal conditions for many years growing up. We fought with hog panels that broke away from the fence and our loading and unloading facilities were poor, to say the least. We processed baby pigs together and unloaded fresh feeder pigs into new pens. The frustration level for both of us rose to high levels at times, but I never heard him curse or say a curse word. In all of our farming years together, under all conditions and varied tasks, this held true. It is incredible, as vile as our culture can be today, but that wasn’t the impression he wanted to leave with me. He may have shouted colorful metaphors internally, but never said anything out loud that I heard.
He used to say things like, “You need to listen more than you speak.” He often told his sons that if we couldn’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. He didn’t put people down. He took them as they came and had compassion for them in his heart. He told us, “Don’t burn bridges with people. Watch what you say. Words matter, so choose them carefully.”
Dad passed away in February 2010, but I think his legacy often is more alive to me today than ever before. And, that’s most likely not so much because of the things he said, but perhaps because of what he didn’t say. I guess that’s what a farm dad sounds like. I’m not nearly as profound in the farm dad role with my children as my father was with me. His shoes are pretty big shoes that I’m still struggling to fill in the same way.
But I do know this. Words do matter. They can cut like a knife. They can wreak havoc, despair and dismay, and cause resentment and disgust. Or, they can build people up, give others confidence, exhibit respect, love and admiration. Which ever words we choose to use or not use, we can be sure of one thing. Little ears are listening.
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