What a Father is Worth: The Invaluable Lessons Dads Teach Us

June 2009

by Gina Roberts-Grey

The role of fathers has drastically changed in the past decades. The images of fathers returning home from work, patting their child on the head and sitting with a drink to quietly read the paper without much family interaction remain forever encapsulated in the portrayal of many television dads of prior generations. These characters serve as a reminder as to the importance of fatherly advice and participation. Beyond being a financial supporter of the family, or the principal exterminator of all things creepy, fathers are vital to a child’s development.

The reality is alarming. According to a study performed by The Families and Work Institute, children who do not have close and trusting relationships with their father have a relationship disadvantage as adults. A child who is not attached to his father by the age of 5 often has lower self esteem and self-confidence at age 10. The study showed these children are less likely to be freely accepted by their peer group and may have difficulty adjusting to school.

The actions of dads often receive close scrutiny and widespread criticism. Television shows, radio ads and talk show hosts are quick to point out the importance of fathers spending time with their children. “All the criticism and comments are aimed at encouraging participation without explaining the significance of a father’s role,” explains Springfield, MO family therapist, Dean Mazurski MA, LMFT. What seems to be lost in the message is the importance of a father regardless of his marital status or professional ambitions. Over the past two decades, experts like Mazurski have realized that while separated, divorced, and dads who work long hours tend to bear the burden of stereotyping, every father’s contribution is important in his child’s life.

Breaking the mold

Fathers are one half of a child’s set of primary role models and examples. They set guidelines and boundaries. A father’s level of interaction and demonstration of emotions can be the basis that determines how a child interacts with his peers.

Years ago, mothers used to be thought of as the primary at-home educator, source of nurturing and care-giver. Today’s fathers are realizing their approach to parenting needs to be enhanced from their predecessors, yet they still question how to be a significant part of their child’s life.

It can be difficult for a hard working and driven father to come home and relate to his toddler daughter’s tea party or new found love of lavender unicorns. Dad’s working two jobs in order to save for college aren’t always eager to spend their only day off playing endless hours of catch with a son who’s trying to learn how to field grounders.

“Many fathers believe that quality time spent with children must be deliberate or scheduled,” says Mazurski. A day at the museum or going to the movies after enduring errands is commonly thought of as spending quality time together. While it is true that sharing extra buttery popcorn is a fun activity, alternative and beneficial fatherly participation can be less structured, more frequent, and cheaper than going to the movies.

Talk to your kids

It may seem simple or obvious, but ask yourself when was the last time you had a conversation with your child? Do you know what his three prized possessions are or who his three best friends are? What is her favorite color, book or stuffed animal of the week? What is he afraid of or want to be when he grows up? Does she know about your grandmother, great grandfather or heritage?

Personal Life Coach and communications expert Debbie Gallagher BA, MBA, of Mobile, AL explains “Regardless of age or gender, you can have a beneficial conversation with your child.” Toddlers love to talk about their toys or their imaginary friend. Elementary aged children talk about who ate a bug on the playground or who is the best dressed girl in third grade. Older kids love to talk about themselves! Whatever topic suits the timing, take five to ten minutes to talk with your child and you’re certain to uncover something you didn’t know before the conversation.

Be attentive

Have you ever had a conversation with someone whom you felt wasn’t paying attention? The other party seemed preoccupied or blindly answered “yes” and “Uh-Huh” occasionally without absorbing what you said. “You don’t want your child to feel his thoughts are not valuable to you. Look at your child when he talks to you,” urges Rymza. Show him he’s important enough to stop what you’re doing and address him.

You’ll give him much more than respect and your attention when communicating. He’ll gain self esteem and confidence in his thoughts. Rymza offers another meaningful reason to give your child your undivided attention, “He’ll feel less anxious to communicate with peers as well as in professional or social setting later in life.”

Play with them

“Kids whose fathers play with them in a sensitive, supportive and challenging ways at age two tend to form closer, more trusting relationships later in life,” shares Mazurski. Play with your child in a way he can understand. Stimulate and encourage your toddler by challenging him to build a fort out of rolls of paper towels.

Steve Scherrer likes to offer his two young sons some appealing suggestions for play as opposed to criticizing their methods or over emphasizing his ideas on how to simulate sound effects. “Since they’re only two and a half and one, I encourage them to experiment within safe limits and allow them to choose what color to finger paint with or what trains to put on the track,” offers Scherrer “When they’re older I also plan on introducing them to my favorite card games and what game I used to play with my neighborhood pals.”

Read together

Since the benefits of reading are bountiful, why not multi-task and read him a favorite story? According to information collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, children whose father’s read with them twice week scored 15% higher on standardized tests and had a significantly higher high school graduation rate. By reading with your kids, you’ll spend time together and help build their reading skills at the same time.

A full-time, single father of two children ages two and four, John Eck has found that reading with his children is a great way to stay involved in their development, as well as for him to unwind after a stressful day. “We take turns selecting the book to read or deciding whose room we should read in. The kids love the chance to have some of the control, and I appreciate the time to help them learn to read” states Eck. You can also surprise younger children by reading them your favorite fairy tale or childhood classic.

Mentor them

A father’s age and life experiences give him an advantage over his children. Share your knowledge, hobbies and worldly expertise with your child. Whether it’s teaching your son how to build a pillow fort, or your daughter how to make a supreme sub sandwich or, there are unlimited options to spend time and build your bond.

The chance to emulate you and admire your ability to swiftly cut the lawn or wax the car offers numerous chances to mentor your children. Whatever the forum, use the time to set the example you want him to follow. “Being involved is the main objective” encourages Mazurski “Too many parents get hung up on planning the perfect outing instead of spending time with their child in ‘real life’.”

Be genuine and open

Talk to your child about how you felt the first time you walked into a strange classroom or were up to bat in your first baseball game. Letting him see the human and sensitive aspects of your personality teaches him you’re more than the person who works hard to support the family. Showing your vulnerability shows your child that you’ve faced adversity and had the confidence to overcome your fears.

Whether you’re a first time father, or seasoned veteran, the most important part of fatherhood to remember is that you are an integral part of your child’s life. The investment you make in your child is one that promises to yield a multitude of benefits. You’ll both share a lifetime of fond memories. You’ll also have the pride in knowing your impact helped shape your child into a loving and self-confident adult. For more information, please visit:Families & Work Institute www.familiesandwork.org SFM

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer who often writes on the subjects of families and children.

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