“Father Forgets”, the Famous W. Livingston Larned poem featured in the classic Dale Carnegie book: How to Win Friends and Influence People, is a stark reminder of the innocence of youth and the unawareness of adulthood. More than that, “Father Forgets” is a beautiful tribute to the importance of relationships.
It’s a poignant reminder of the importance of words, and actions, and the timeless quality of a look, a touch, a bond and a friendship, especially between fathers and sons.
Mr. Larned and 1927 has taught me a lesson. The Reader’s digest version of this classic poem has given me a lot to think about.
This poem, “Father Forgets” should be required reading for any parent. Required reading for any man. Required reading for anyone who one day hopes to have a child.
Below are the words of the beautiful poem “Father Forgets”:
Listen, son: I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen into your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.
There are the things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.
At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply,
“Hold your shoulders back!”
Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before your boyfriends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive‐and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!
Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither.
And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs. Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me?
The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding‐this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.
And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed!
It is feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy‐a little boy!”
I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.
-W. Livingston Larned
I’m guilty of every bad thing in this poem, in the most egregious way against my 10 year old step son.
In my own defense before I tell you about how horrible I am for holding a child to an adult standard (and a lofty standard at that), I must admit, if my step-son wasn’t such a clever, well-spoken and impressive child, I’d never be guilty of holding him to such a standard.
In all honesty, I often find myself much more impressed with his capacity as a human being, in all aspects of life, than I am with some adults that someone has tried to convince me is impressive.
Now, I will dissect my shortcomings so if by chance, one day, my ten year old (when he’s a bit older, and Google-willing) sees this post online and happens to read it, he might understand how impressive I’ve always thought he was.
Firstly: I’m not afraid to admit I want to set high standards for my children. I love them unconditionally, but I want them to be as capable as possible. I want their legacy to be one of respect and love. I want anyone who knows of my children, to know that they were the best they could be in any given situation.
I’m not going to make excuses, except that I expect the utmost of respectability in my children. Not so they reflect nicely on me, but so they reflect nicely on themselves.
It’s the little things. The mastery we have finally achieved, which spurns the uneasiness about our children’s shortcomings. We fail to factor in, that we probably have just recently achieved the capacity to control ourselves at the dinner table, or in making ourselves presentable before we go out. When was the last time we polished our everyday shoes? I’m not talking about the church shoes or the shoes the Investment banker makes his rain in, I mean the shoes we wear daily. Sure, I get it, this was written in 1927, and maybe we don’t really expect kids to polish their shoes anymore. Maybe we don’t wear shoes that need polishing quite as often as we once had. But it’s still relevant. It’s the little things we feel so proud to have gotten beyond that we get so angry about. Almost as if we are afraid some other adult is watching, and a shortfall on something so menial, would be an absolute disservice to the human family.
And what about the innocence of youth and their ability to love without remembering the bad times as easily as we do. We worry about their posture, or what they are forgetting, instead of realizing how fleeting the moments we have with them as children actually are. Instead of smiling for the love of a child to their father, we find the things we wouldn’t want anyone to recognize, and use them as reprimands. Then our children heed our calls and fix those trespasses. Shame on us.
We worry about money and we punish publicly, because we can, not because we need to. We forget how bad we felt when we were once the subject of such lectures on the value of items our parents bought us, or how we are being made to look a fool in front of our friends. And yet, our children stay quiet, because they know, it’s better to forget about it, than make a big deal over it.
And then, when we least expect it, when we are faux-busy, and right in the middle of something we don’t really need to do, we forget how important it is that we spend quality time with you, so you can grow up to be the best person and the best parent you can be. It’s right then, that you give us a big hug or tell us something fantastic, and we downplay it because we have become too self-important.
And then our guilt, or maybe something on a higher plane comes over us to help us recognize the neglect and ridiculousness we have been perpetrating against you. Maybe it’s the thought that at any moment, some horrible thing could happen that separates us from you and you from us. Maybe it’s because we haven’t quite achieved heartlessness, while “achieving” other important things in life. Maybe it’s because we realize as you’re improving, everything about our own lives is getting more difficult and we are losing that innocence and youthfulness that made us once feel so alive like you are.
As we think about it, a lump in our throats, we cannot expect to explain it properly to you, or even to be able to say what really needs to be said, because it is not within written words that true love is shown, it’s in actions, and tone of voice and compassion that we can really communicate together. In a look, or a hug, or an appreciation for the beauty you bring to our lives. After all, isn’t this life all about family? Isn’t everything we do about our legacy and our love and those things that never leave? And here we are, pushing away that very thing we desire most in life.
We have expected too much of you. But in reality, it is a sad realization that more than that, we have expected too little of ourselves.
Though I cannot deny that I have read this, time and again, swearing I will change, and bite my tongue and praise you more often and love you more, I must also admit, I only learn a tiny bit each time I read this beautiful poetry, and certainly not enough to do it in a way you deserve for me to do it.
I do love you. I do recognize your capacity. I do want you to someday understand the important role you have played in my becoming the type of man I have always told people I wanted to be.
Again: I have expected too much of you and really, I have expected too little of myself.