Twelve Happens

Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette
Copyright 1996 Sophisticated:The Magazine. All rights reserved.

"Let me get this straight," said I into the phone. "You want to buy my lunch?"

Joe's voice was solemn as usual. "Tuesday, if you're free."

Twenty years my junior, Joe Wilcox was the chief financial officer for a company where I did some consulting. We had nothing else in common, so far as I knew. "Any particular subject, Joe?"

"My wife is pregnant."

Several thoughts trickled through the registers inside my head. One made me chuckle. I neglected to cover the mouthpiece.

"It just happens," Joe protested, "to be my first child, and -- "

"In my book, nothing just happens -- in particular, children."

"You may assume I knew that much. All I want right now is to be a good father. You've raised your kids already. I figure you must have some pointers I can use."

A slight man with unparted hair, Joe Wilcox was the definition of 'due diligence' -- the model accountant of the seventies, ever fixing in his gaze the lines and columns that decorate the ledgers of his trade: the Balance Sheet, the P&L -- "Where are the 'sources and apps' on this?" he would ask. He wanted my advice on fatherhood. There was nothing funny about that.

"Bring your credit card, Joe."

In my files, I found notes about the word 'happen' -- a chancy, slippery word, disconnected from cause and effect, from agent and action, from intent and consequences. Its furtive properties first struck me in a family context:

    "I'm sorry for what happened."
What was supposed to be a child's apology contained an adult's craftiness. Over the years, I had observed the word 'happen' as an accomplice to exculpations in other realms -- business and political and personal: "I wonder how that happened" in place of "Who is responsible?"

Perhaps you hear, as I do,...

  • a heedless shrug in, "Things like that just happen,"
  • a weakened chastisement in, "Try not to let that happen again,"
  • a dysfunctional admonition in, "Let's make it happen!"
Fatherliness, it seems to me, would be improved by the mere elimination of 'happen' -- the word and the notion. Maybe that's what I'll tell Joe. "Fatherhood doesn't just 'happen'," I might say.

But there's a whole lot more to de-happening parenthood -- to being pro-active as a father. Joe Wilcox deserves the best I can think of. I lost a night's sleep.

"We are both 'men of numbers'," I began. Joe moved his coffee cup to the side and clicked his pen.  "I have four ideas to offer you, each characterized by the number twelve." I watched him write the ciphers into his pocket notebook. "The most critical non-replenishable natural resource is time. Time is of the essence in fathering. Thus, I offer you four amounts of time." I held up four fingers. "Twelve years, twelve months, twelve hours, twelve minutes. Which one do you want to talk about first?"

"Start at the top," he said.

"Twelve years: that's all you have, Joe. Fathering only lasts for twelve years. That may be the most important thing I have to say. We can quit right now, if you like."

"What happens after twelve years?"

"You might as well accept the fact that kids turn rotten at the age of thirteen," I replied. "That may be putting it a bit too strongly, but once those adolescent hormones flow, your influence is at an end."

Joe nodded and jotted. "What's next? Twelve months?"

"Before going on to that, permit me to add one point: Kids do come back again. In their twenties, usually. The joy of fathering returns, but the influence does not. Nobody told me what I'm telling you." I struck myself palm-to-forehead. "Had I only known! All my parental regrets, Joe, are of that form."

"You would have done things differently, then?"

"For sure. But I'm not going to tell you what I would do now -- nor will I try to tell you what to do. Only this: A common mistake of youth, is not thinking about the end of anything -- not bothering to consider the reality that everything comes to an end. Awareness of a limit shapes what you do during the available time. Same for the twelve months, by the way."

"Which is?"

"The duration of pregnancy."

Joe gave me a quizzical shrug and tried to smile.

"Only the first nine months take place, as they say, in utero. Infant dependency continues far beyond birth. The baby's demands are unbounded, imposing intense loads."

"For the mother, though," Joe commented.

"Keep that in mind, Joe. While your wife is not a wife. Meanwhile, you are not a bachelor. It is the worst of all carnal worlds. Again, 'Had I only known!' You can take comfort in the fact that there's a time limit."

"Allow a year total, you're saying."

"Not much more than that. Ready for twelve hours?"

"You did give this some thought, didn't you."

"The twelve hours I learned about in Sunday school: '...let not the sun go down upon your wrath...' The objective is to eliminate 'you-nevers' and 'you-always' in family discourse. In financial terms: Keep your accounts current."

"Grudges, you mean. Don't carry grudges."

"Right. And don't delay expressions of praise and appreciation. The currency of fathering comes in many denominations. Kids don't have long memories for those kinds of things. Positive reinforcement may not be effective if postponed beyond twelve hours."

" 'Currency of Fathering'," mused Joe.

"Thought you'd like that. Now, for the twelve minutes. Which will surprise you: That's all the time it takes to be a good father."

"Twelve minutes!"

"Each day, that is. Mothering takes longer -- all day in the beginning. But for most of a child's life at home, the father can get by with less than a quarter of an hour."

"Quality time?"

"Call it that if you want to. Thing is, anyone can afford that much time. Excuses like, 'I don't have the time' become lame indeed if all we're talking about is twelve minutes."

"Who told you that?" asked Joe.

"My own father," said I. "By example."

Joe Wilcox studied my eyes. "Fond memories, I can tell."

"As a father myself, I imposed the rule that the twelve minutes occured at the same time each day. I chose dinnertime. Nothing was allowed to interfere: television, telephone, nothing."

"Knowing you, there must have been mostly talk," said Joe while reaching for the check.

"It was all talk, often initiated by someone asking 'What was the most significant event for you today?' Imagine what it's like to be asked that question by a four-year-old. And knowing you will be asked, you come prepared. But remember, the game is not for teenagers. They'll dump on you with 'sheesh!' or 'oh-dads'."

He closed his notebook. "You ought to write these things down."

"Don't get the wrong idea, Joe. You're not about to tell your child something like, 'Excuse me, but your twelve minutes are up for today.'"

"Seems doubtful."

"The twelve minutes does not mark the end of anything but, as a practical matter, the middle -- if not the beginning of something with lifelong value."

Joe Wilcox stood up and offered me his hand. "I'll let you know what happens."

"Thanks, for the lunch, Joe. One more thing: Try not to use the word 'happen'."

happen 1.To come to pass; come into being; take place.
2. To take place or come about by chance.
3. To come upon something by chance.
4. To appear by chance; turn up.

Background -- and Foreground

In the early sixties, I called our head of accounting, Bob Walden, to follow up on a purchase request that required his signature. I assumed it was stalled in his office, so the expression 'follow up' was really a euphemism for 'complain about.'

    "Mr. Walden is out for the day," his secretary told me, "but he took care of it before he left."

    "How can you be so sure?" asked I.

    "Mr. Walden has a firm rule: He never allows any document that requires his signature to sit on his desk overnight. He either approves or rejects it the same day. If he did not call you for clarifications, you may assume your request was approved."

Wow! I thought to myself (sometimes I use stronger language in my thoughts, but 'wow' fit the bill). If all managers adopted Bob's rule, that would mark the end of bureaucratic delays!  I did not wait for January 1, 1965 but instead immediately adopted a resolution.  I call it the "The Twelve-Hour Policy."

Over the years, I have applied the discipline to my personal life, as indicated above, and to all aspects of my business life, as well...

    Institutional Responsiveness: Here is a piece of incoming correspondence. A reply shall be prepared within twelve hours -- even if it says, "Your letter/memo about [issue] arrived while we are in the middle of [some high priority activity]; please give me [x days] to get back to you."

    Time Management: There is this -- well, unpleasant thing I have to do. The Twelve Hour Policy, while forcing neither snap judgments nor knee-jerk reactions, is nevertheless an effective instrument to combat procrastination and the adverse effects of 'pain avoidance' ("Maybe I'll talk to him/her next week about that [problem]").

    Chain of Command: If you work for me, you are obliged to express your complaints and opinions about your job directly to me.  Nevertheless, you are free to go over my head -- however, if you do decide to talk to my boss, you must tell me the substance of that conversation within twelve hours.

The sophisticated reader may identify other business applications for each of the time-based recommendations set forth above...
  • Twelve minutes per day 'quality time' with each 'direct-report,'
  • Twelve days for follow-up cycles or for 'closing the loop' on management directives,
  • Twelve months for the 'management of expectations' about certain kinds of decisions,
  • Twelve years for long-range planning or career assessment.
If so, let us know.
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