From Embarrassment to Appreciation

When I was a teenager I often found my father to be embarrassing to me, in numerous half-remembered ways. This is a common enough phenomenon.(1) Some of that embarrassment found expression at Church. In particular, he seemed to lack the deference to local authorities the other kids’ fathers had, and he also seemed to be embarrassingly smart.

My dad was a college professor (of education) in a ward of mostly good, humble folk. He seemed to think of Church as an extension of the university. It was a place for discussion, debate, questioning and critique. None of the other boys’ fathers did this. To my teenage eye he seemed to lack appropriate deference to the decisions of local authorities.

His faith was like a rock (much stronger than mine), but he came from a different place and time in the Church. He had been schooled by the great Utah Institute teachers of a couple of generations ago, men like T. Edgar Lyon. He seemed to have a supreme confidence in the Church and his place in it. It was his Church, too, and he felt entitled and secure in voicing his opinions about things. This drove me a little nuts at the time, but from the perspective of maturity and increased experience I’ve grown to appreciate this more than I did as a boy. My assumptions about church leaders–that they are generally good and honorable people but far from infallible and prone to human error, as are we all–derive largely from my father. As a result, I have never lost faith as a result of disappointment in the words or actions of a church leader.(2)

One concrete example I remember involved a high school teacher who drove trucks during the summer to make ends meet. In the summers he would come to Church in an open neck shirt, sans suit or tie. The local leadership started leaning on him hard to at least wear a tie, but my dad came to his defense, and told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t need to wear a tie if he didn’t want to. At the time I was mortified by this, but now I appreciate his willingness to “throw down”(3) in defense of a friend he felt was being yanked around unnecessarily.

He was also really smart, which annoyed me no end at the time. On one occasion, he was asked to substitute teach the youth Sunday School class, and in the drama of youth I died a thousand deaths sitting in that class. It wasn’t like the other classes at all.

As the class ended and we walked from the room, I was preparing to offer obsequious apologies to my friends for having to sit through such a lesson. To my great astonishment, they liked it. They gushed about what a great lesson it was and what a great teacher he was and how he hadn’t talked down to them and they actually learned things and on and on. I was completely shocked by their reaction. And I began to see my father through the eyes of my friends, as others saw him, and my appreciation for him began to grow that day.(4)

(1) See, for example, the experiences of 15-year old Jeremy Duncan in the comic strip Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, distributed by King Features.

(2) Rather like the old Mad TV staple routine, Lowered Expectations, which was the name of a dating service parody on the show.

(3) An expression meaning “to engage in combat” common in UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] parlance.

(4) A personal shout out to J. Stapley: Thanks for putting me up at your place, and please extend my gratitude to your lovely wife for me. The footnotes in this post are in your honor.


  1. Kevin,

    Thanks for the post. I don’t have much to say except that I completely understand because my father seems to be very much like yours. Cheers to them!

  2. Kevin – Thanks for the reminder of the silliness of youth. I have similar experiences of my own but as I’ve grown older, and in some ways gained some of the same wisdom that my father has though the experience of raising four sons, I have come to appreciate his good sense and especially his perfect love for me and for my siblings. He is a bit crusty now in his 88th year but he would give you the shirt off his back. I think as we come to see the flaws in our own lives we can accept that our fathers were not perfect and we wouldn’t want them any other way.

  3. I’m like that cowbell guy: “I got a fever and the only prescription is more footnotes!”

    That said, whenever I look back to middle school, I cringe. How could I have been so willing to sacrifice who I was?

  4. My dad was a no nonsense kind of guy who worked incredibly hard. The only times I remember feeling embarrassed by him was when he did not understand my need to dress like a goof, slack off from work, and spend money I didn’t have. I couldn’t believe that anybody could be so dumb as to think that saving for an education or a mission was more important than buying stereo speakers 5 feet high. Now I aspire to be dumb in the same way he was.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I was inspired to write this because my mom just sent me my dad’s application for rank advancement to full professor. Sometimes she’ll be cleaning out her house and find stuff like this and send it to me. It was a typewritten document from the 60’s, yellowed with age. I was pretty impressed; it always seemed to me as though he just sat around the house most of the time, but obviously he did a lot of work, even if it was academic in nature.

    I find it interesting how as teenagers we often fail to appreciate our parents, and then as we grow older and have children and jobs and mortgages, we all of a sudden begin to see them in a new light.

  6. I wonder if there’s a way to consider church leadership fallible and still follow them humbly, without frequent “discussion, debate, questioning and critique” that might have the effect–even if unintended–of undermining those leaders confidence in themselves or the confidence of others in them. I wonder because I sometimes find myself finding fault with my local leadership, and have found that doing so isn’t helping me or others much.

  7. Nice post.

    It makes me think of my own fols in a different light even if they still are a little cooky…

    Someone once said God Gives parents children only so that when they become teenagers they feel them deny thier existence.

    Another real life Godly lesson… Take with it what you will.

  8. It’s good you included the footnotes. I didn’t know if I could trust you otherwise, right Stapley?

    I remember feeling so embarrassed that my dad was willing to be who he was. He liked to sing, he was good, so he sang all the time, in public, in private etc. He was also friendly, extroverted and knew people felt good when he went out of his way to acknowledge them. That was humiliating to me. And then he died. And I missed those things. (I believe there is a Mike and the Mechanics song that profoundly expresses those my deep, unspeakable feelings. In fact, I’d like to sing it right now…)

  9. jothegrill says:

    I gained more appreciation for Spencer W Kimball recently while reading his biography. His father announced from the podium at his high school graduation that he would be leaving on a mission instead of starting college in the fall (which is what Spencer was planning on doing.) He also wrote an open letter to his son which was published for all the city to see, telling him that he should sign up for active duty in the military (which he did not do.) SWK seemed to handle these incidences well, but man, it made me so thankful for my dad, and the privacy he afforded me growing up.

  10. #8, In the Living Years. They did a good job of capturing the regret of a tumultuous parental relationship.

    Just record an mp3 and post it. The bloggernacle should have a karaoke night/talent show. ;)

  11. “My dad was a college professor (of education) in a ward of mostly good, humble folk. He seemed to think of Church as an extension of the university. It was a place for discussion, debate, questioning and critique.”

    Substitute “physics” for “education,” and you’ve described my dad exactly. Alas, I lacked whatever teenage embarrassment reflex is supposed to kick in, and I went around being just like him. Needless to say, I was somewhat underappreciated by my hapless YW advisors. In fact, on my first day as a Beehive, my teacher’s reaction to seeing me walk in the door was “oh no! Are you 12 already?” (I’d gone through about 6 Merrie Miss teachers during my first crisis of faith over polygamy).

    I’m guessing my kids will rebel by quoting long passages of Bruce R. McConkie in all their talks and becoming Eagle Scouts on the day they turn 14 :)

  12. I remember my dad substituting in one of my Primary classes long ago and at the end of class (remember these are 8 year olds) playing hangman and trying to guess the word my dad put up there which was ‘anti-disestablishmentarianism’. Of course, none of us guessed it.

    Fortunately, the rest of the class got a kick out that (thereby saving me any embarrassment).

  13. My father (and my mother, but to a lesser degree) seemed to take everything so seriously, except the things that I took seriously. We were constantly boycotting something (Shell Oil, General Electric, industrially-grown grapes). He would come to my football games and cheer for the other team if they seemed to need it, wearing sandals and shouting, ‘A good, effort, fellows!’ in his Wisconsin accent. He was always bringing scraggly (and sometimes smelly) people to church with us, who would sit with our family while everyone stared. I have a vivid memory of him sitting at the clerk’s table during sac. mtg. holding someone’s baby — the baby happened to be very black, born out of wedlock to a (white) member of the ward. He registered no discomfort, even though the rest of the ward wriggled in the pews (including, I’m ashamed to say, my sister and I). He was a mathematician, and he didn’t register what anyone thought of him, and still doesn’t.

    At some point I realized that I remember my father being the age I am now, and started to see him for the great man that he is. And, inevitably, we boycott products, give a schitzophrenic guy a ride to church…

  14. If you have changed how you feel about your parents, it might be a kindness to actually let them know it.

    When one of my children was in their early 20s, I got a letter from them saying that they were embarassed by me and they neither liked nor loved me. This was pretty crushing since I had done everything I could for that child.

    But as in all things, I accepted their choice.

    My daughter-in-law thinks I am cold because I don’t assume my place as his mother in some instances. I wait to be invited, because if he doesn’t want me there, I don’t want to embarass him. I’ve requested that no funeral be held when I die, so that nobody is forced to say that they loved me, if they didn’t.

    He is very friendly to me. He moved back to our town a few years ago, something that would have been easy NOT to do, if avoiding me was a priority. He goes out of his way to say hello, even when we are in public when it wouldn’t be expected.

    I don’t know if he is still embarassed by me and neither likes nor loves me, or not. I am not going to ask, because I don’t want to go through that again.

    So to anyone who has changed their attitude and now has more respect for your parents, please tell them, so they don’t have to go through my version of hell.

  15. molly bennion says:

    Kevin, the church could use a lot more like your dad!

    Your observations of seeing your dad through the eyes of other class members reminds me how grateful I am to have worked for my dad during high school and college vacations. Seeing how my dad practiced dentistry, how he treated people and how high a standard he demanded of himself and his employees has allowed me to see him foremost as a fine human being and only secondarily as a fine father with whom I have sometimes disagreed.

  16. Doug Turner says:

    I remember your dad very well. One additional memory I have of him is his music ability. I remember when he would lead the hymns in our meetings. He would not think twice about stopping the whole congregation if he didn’t think we were singing correctly! I also remember that after a few such “stops” we all sat up a little straighter and sang a little louder when your dad took up the baton. Happy memories. All the best, Doug