Flying in an airplane is much safer than covering the same distance riding in a car. Yet most people are more afraid of flying than driving.
One of the main reasons for this is availability bias, in which things that are easier to call to mind are given greater weight than things that are less memorable. Availability bias is why we remember the rare plane crash that is all over the news rather than the thousands of car rides every day.
Most of the time, availability bias is a problem that leads us to make faulty decisions about risk. At the beach, we may be more concerned with shark attacks than skin cancer; after watching Law & Order SVU, we vastly overestimate the incidence of child abduction.
But we can also use this quirk of human memory to our advantage. The near-universal aspiration of fathers is being a constant presence in our children’s lives and also being remembered as that constant presence. The former involves being a good father. The latter can be helped by consciously activating availability bias in our kids. In short, we have to:
- Do all the everyday, sometimes unnoticed work of being a good father
- Punctuate the everyday with occasional bursts of something memorable
My dad was a constant loving presence throughout my childhood. Upon reflection, I know he did all the grunt work of being a good father—providing for our family, maintaining the house, buying the presents Santa gave us, reading to me, teaching me to brush my teeth, disciplining me when I needed it, and so on. This is far and away the most important work he did for me and my family.
However, when I think back to my childhood, I don’t remember those things. I remember the above-ground pool he built in our back yard and swimming with him. I remember my summers at Great Kills Little League with him as my team’s manager. I remember us watching Dave Righetti’s July 4th no-hitter. I remember the Galoonky-rides (our silly version of a piggy-back ride) when it was bedtime. I remember our camping trips in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the tiny Shasta trailer. These are the fun, memorable events that, thanks to availability bias, are in the front of my mind.
I try to do the same for my son, Nick. Like my dad, I put in the thankless everyday work—providing for the family, packing lunch, buying Santa’s presents, helping Nick with homework, restricting his screen-time, driving him to gymnastics, etc. But, perhaps because I teach stuff like availability bias in my management courses, I am very mindful about also building fun, memorable traditions with Nick. Like my dad did for me, I coach Nick’s little league team. When my wife, Amy, has to work nights, especially during the summer, Nick and I spend evenings at the town pool or at the local minor league stadium.
I share all things Star Wars with Nick; we spend a lot of time watching the movies, engaging in elaborate light-saber battles (we even developed characters—I am evil Sith Lord Darth Taraco, he is Jedi Qui-Son), and playing the Wii LEGO Star Wars games together. I decorate his birthday cakes with elaborate Star Wars scenes, we march in my town’s Halloween parade as a group of Star Wars characters (me: Boba Fett, him: Darth Vader, Amy: a very regal Queen Amidala), and Nick and I even built the Lego Millennium Falcon together. The payoff for all of this—last year, his hand-made Father’s Day card to me read “The galaxy is better with you and me, Dad!”
Amy does similar things with Nick. They share all things Harry Potter, including the books, movies, Wii game, and even a trip to Universal Florida (mmmm butter beer!). When I work nights, Amy and Nick bake cookies. They share a love of YouTube “epic fail” videos and those funny “Sign Spotting” books. Nick loves going backstage at the theaters where Amy works. And that’s just a small part of their shared activities.
When Nick looks back on his childhood, I think he will remember feeling secure that both his parents were constant loving presences in his life. But he won’t remember how great his mom was when he was sick with the stomach flu or how I picked up a summer class to get a little extra money for the vacation fund. I do think he will remember Star Wars, baseball and swimming with dad. I think he will remember reading Harry Potter, baking cookies, going backstage at the Madison Square Garden Theater, and laughing the night away with mom.
While it is definitely more important that we do the less memorable, less-glamorous hard work of being a good dad, creating happy lifelong memories is important too—for us and our kids. Thank you, availability bias.
To create a childhood full of happy memories, all we need is a little creativity and an open mind. Homer Simpson once quipped that one of the perks of fatherhood is that you get to teach your kids to hate the things you hate. Let me invert that: One of the best things about fatherhood is getting your kids to love the things you love. I had a specific plan to get Nick into Star Wars, but I was lucky that he really took to it right away.
However, it’s not always so easy. Your kids will also be interested in things that you are not at all interested in, and they will reject some things you love. In these cases, we have to find a way to get interested in their stuff, or work to find some middle ground.
There is a universe of things to try—art, science, reading, travel, cooking, photography, music, fashion, outdoors, sports, and more. There are so many ways to build fun memorable events or common hobbies into our kids’ childhoods. Sometimes, it just takes a little extra effort to get started. Here’s one dad who did so, in his own words:
I wouldn’t trade my daughters for the world, but sometimes, I do need to push myself to keep me into what they are interested in. They love princesses, dresses and things that aren’t up my alley. “Will you play Magic Clips with me?” But I push myself to do it, and do it happily, because, well, it makes them so happy. I never thought I’d go to “Frozen on Ice,” but there I am. Because I love them and have to meet them where they are at. My long-term plan of getting them into punk rock and tennis, however, is working perfectly.