A few words for dad:
I received a letter a while back. It might have been from your kid.
Actually, I received a stack of letters - short essays, to be exact - written by 12th-graders participating in a Father of the Year essay contest sponsored by the National Center for Fathering. The topic: "What My Father Means To Me." I sat down intending to glance at a handful of the pieces, but before I knew it, I had read them all. They left me wondering about the men who inspired the words.
One girl - maybe your daughter - wrote:
"My father is my heart and I couldn't imagine my life without him. ... I never had to look for him because my Dad is always around. ... After I was raped, my father made a vow he would never let anything else happen to me and nothing has ever since."
Or maybe your kid is the one who wrote:
"My father is a role model to me. He was a part of my life ever since I was born. What I love about him the most is that he never lied to me a day in my life. When I am around him I feel ... safe."
If one of those is your child, if that even sounds like what he or she would say, congratulations on a job well done. And happy Father's Day. But truthfully, most of the essays did not exactly glow with praise. So maybe your kid is the one who wrote:
"What my father means to me? He doesn't mean anything to me. The reason I say this is because growing up I really never spoke to my father. I don't know why, but he has never really been in my life and I have never cared to ask why."
Or maybe your kid wrote:
"My father means nothing to me because he hasn't been there for me when I needed him. He thinks he should only come around on my birthday and on Christmas. He needs to be a better father."
Or maybe this is your kid:
"My father left my mother when I was 3 years of age. Many times my father made promises to me and could not keep them. My father never made it to any of my birthdays after he told me he would be there. I would sit in front of my apartment and wait for him to come and he never came. There wasn't a time when I did not cry after my birthday parties."
Is that your child talking? God help you if it is.
One of the hardest truths of parenthood is that you never know how well you've done till it's too late to do anything about it. When that child who once clung to your shin becomes a man looking you in the eye, you realize with an abruptness that the time for molding personality and imparting life wisdom has passed.
I have fathered three kids, step-fathered two more, the youngest now 16. And there is not one of them for whom I wouldn't like to have a do-over so I could fix something I did or do something I should have done.
But when you read these essays, you realize that so often what a child remembers best and values most is not what you did or didn't do. I'm not saying those things don't matter. But what matters more is that you are there. Predictably, dependably, reliably there. Indeed, putting aside food and shelter, arguably the most fundamentally important thing you give a child is simply your presence.
We change the equation when we are there.
I know that defies conventional wisdom in a culture that normalizes father absence and happily pretends the interchangeability of woman and man. It allows a man to give a child absence and tell himself it doesn't matter, because so long as there is food on the table and a mom in the house, the child will be fine regardless.
But to read those essays - and if your child wrote one, what would it say? - is to recognize that for the selfish delusion it is.
You may fool yourself. You don't fool your children at all.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.