I was travelling to Melbourne with mixed emotions, excited about my daughter Lily’s twenty-first birthday party that evening, but also worried I had no idea what to say in my father’s speech.
The risk of getting it wrong was high. I’d heard Lily and friends groan regularly about cringe worthy ‘Dad jokes’ at birthday party speeches. Humour had to be avoided.
Even worse were some of the awful fathers’ speeches I’d witnessed. These men told embarrassing stories about their children, ironic and sometimes clever, but lacking warmth, acknowledgement and appreciation.
I’d hoped these dads were just trying to be funny. Or wanting to counterbalance the gushing emotional tributes sure to come from friends and family. Or maybe I was being too sensitive.
Yet I could not help feeling these birthday boys and girls had been profoundly let down by their dads.
I wanted to do better in my father’s speech. But high up over the Nullarbor with only ninety minutes to landing, I was drawing a blank.
I flicked through my e-mails, my standard delaying tactic for avoiding challenging tasks. I noticed an unopened message from Lily sent the previous day containing an ‘interesting article’. As I read on I knew Divine Inspiration had come at just the right time. I had all I needed for the speech and hastily scribbled some notes before the plane landed.
Here is what I said:
“Good evening all and welcome to Lily’s twenty-first celebration!
Just yesterday she sent me an article called Why Gen Y Yuppies Are So Unhappy maybe some of you read it. If the article is accurate there are a lot of unhappy people in this room!
If you have not read it here is a quick summary. We are introduced to Lucy, a typical Gen Y who has been told her whole life she is special. But when faced with the reality of working life she soon realises she is not special at all. In fact, she is like most everyone else, and well behind some massive high achievers. All those medals she’d received for finishing ninth in the dressage competition count for little now in the Deloitte Graduate Programme. So the message to Lucy is something like get over yourself and get to work.
At the end of the article, the author fails in his attempt to shift from relentless negativity to something positive. His final message to Lucy is ‘Ignore how other people are doing, keep dreaming big but stop thinking you’re special.’
I wonder how poor Lucy feels after all that. If I was her I’d be confused and discouraged. She’s been raised in a culture comprising social media, friends, school, university, colleagues and her employer who all constantly compare her to everyone else more publicly than any time in history. Furthermore, since she was small her ambitious parents have told her she’s special because of her achievements great and small.
Lucy is trapped in this world view.”
I paused, feeling time slow down. Confident smiles on the faces around me faded, revealing an aching vulnerability. Beneath their poise was uncertainty about themselves and their futures. They were hungry for encouragement. I kept going.
“So I want to propose a radically different view: I think you Gen Ys are special! Each and every one of you. Not only for your grades, sporting achievements and career prospects, as important as those are. It’s really about who you are as human beings. No one who has ever lived or will live is like you. Each one of you has a unique gift to offer the world.
Please take time to find out who you really are. Not just the superficial stuff we can all see. Ask people you love to tell you what they see in you. And hold on to it for all your life.
I cannot wait to see who each one of you becomes as you blossom into your full selves.
Now I’m going to tell you about someone particularly special this evening – Lily – and the twenty-one things I love about her as a person, in no particular order:
The mood had lifted. When I finished many young people thanked me. They felt special! A few had private conversations with older people in the corners to voice their self-doubts and gain reassurance.
Soon, however, everyone was up having huge fun, dancing away like mad fools until the early hours. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.
I was reminded how crucial are such milestones in life. Even more important is that men step into these opportunities to bestow blessings on young people, fill them with confidence, let them know we believe in who they are and stand with them.
Why are these moments so powerful? Unlike the love of a mother who bears and nurtures a child from inception, a father’s love is discretionary. The indifference of many men toward their kids is in part reflected in lukewarm speeches at weddings and birthdays. Sadly, these guys seem to forget the immense power we men have to build up our children. Or worse, we shy away from it.
By naming a child’s strengths and gifts publicly, telling the whole community why this young person is a special human being, a man is announcing his full approval to the world and sending them forth.
If you are a father, or have a close relationship with a young person, please create occasions to speak into their lives both privately and publicly. Or if you know a father, please encourage him to do so.
And we need to recognise more than achievements and awards, the useful but ultimately external stuff that fades away. Instead we must keep reminding our children who they are as unique human beings. It is one of the most important jobs we have as men.
 Adam’s Return by Richard Rohr