Big Brother: My Parenting Practice Run

Cary McNeal
3


Flickr photo by Roland
Know what's harder than being a parent? Being a parent-to-be. That fear of the unknown can be brutal, especially to those who've had little experience with kids and babies. In other words, many (most?) prospective dads.

We don't babysit when we're teenagers. We don't change our little cousins' diapers because it's "good practice for later." We avoid babies because they're loud and smelly, and we run from toddlers because they're annoying and usually have snot running down their faces.

That's how I grew up, at least: clueless and ill-prepared to be a competent parent. Then I did something that saved my bacon: I volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters Of America. I didn't realize it at the time, but being a Big Brother is a lot like being a parent, especially when your Little is very young, like mine was. The experience helped prepare me to be a father in ways I never expected or even realized at the time.

Ryan, my Little, was 6 when we were matched. Though shy at first, he had a great sense of humor, even at 6, and liked all the things I liked -- sports, movies, video games, Taco Bell. We hit it off right away, and would spend many a Saturday in the coming years having fun together. We did it all: camping, road trips, water parks, hiking, baseball games, you name it, often with my wife in tow. It didn't take long before he felt like our own child.

But there was more to it than just fun, of course. Spending that time with Ryan was a parenting practice run, and it taught me what it means to love and care for a child, and to want to make that child feel loved and valued and as important to your life as you are to his. It taught me things like dependability and consistency. How to listen. Why you have to keep your promises. How to say no when you need to say no, and "I'm sorry, I was wrong" when you were.

What's funny is that in the process of learning all those things, I was the one who ended up feeling loved and valued and important. Whatever Ryan gained from our relationship -- and you'd have to ask him -- I got back twofold.

I remained Ryan's Big Brother even after my own child was born -- he was part of my family -- and when our match (but not our friendship) ended on his 18th birthday, per BB/BS rules, we'd been together 12 years, the full term of the program. I'm not sure how we accomplished this, but I'm glad we did. Not only am I proud of us, but I also feel fortunate to have learned so much from the experience when all I expected was a few afternoons in the park and lots of bowl-a-thons.

I encourage everyone I know to think about volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They always need Bigs, and many Littles wait months before being matched. If you know someone who would make a good Big Brother or Sister, please ask them to look into the program. They'll be glad they did.

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