What I Think it Means to be
Because I write a column about my experiences as a dad, people mistakenly think that I'm a "parenting expert." Excuse me while I stop laughing. Believe me, I'm no expert. I'm just trying my best not to mess things up. Still, I'm often asked what I think it means to be a dad. Well, if you really want to know…
First of all, I think it's clear that the era of the "passive dad" is long gone. It's no longer vogue to pace around in the waiting room at the hospital handing out cigars. Dads are actually invited to be in the delivery room for the birth of their child. That's a great thing. And it's no longer de rigueur for a man to come home from work, plop in his easy chair, and read the paper while his wife makes his dinner and tends to the children. Dads are actually encouraged to help in the kitchen and help with the kids. That's a great thing, too.
Heck, society no longer mandates that the man of the household work and the woman stay home. Based on changing attitudes, better paying jobs for women, and numerous other factors, dads are accepting the new challenge of being the primary caregiver for their children. According to U.S. Census data, about 160,000 American men now call themselves "stay-at-home dads" and 2.9 million American preschoolers are cared for by their dads while their moms work.
This "modern dad" concept shouldn't be looked at as a troublesome burden. It should be viewed as a grand opportunity. It takes work, for sure, but being an involved father is incredibly fulfilling. Better yet, the active involvement of a dad is a pretty good way to ensure the development of great children.
Whether you are a stay-at-home dad with countless hours to spend with your children or a father with a demanding work schedule, there are some specific ways to provide your child with the unique influence of a father's love.
First, creating wonderful children is largely about modeling appropriate behavior. From a very young age, kids pick up on the words and deeds of their parents. If mommy or daddy says or does something, then it must be right. "Daddy knows everything" is a typical mantra for children. As a father, simply be aware of your actions. You don't have to be perfect and you don't have to be Superman, but you should act the way you expect your children to act. Don't berate the Little League umpire if you don't want your child to do the same at the next game.
Second, fathers are so important to their children, because they usually offer something a little different — and complementary — than mothers. Many dads, for example, enjoy being the family comedian or the one to roll on the floor and dig in the dirt with the kids. Dads should relish these roles and connect with their children through play or whatever other positive method suits their personality. In other words, do what you do best.
Mick Cochrane, author of the beautiful young adult novel, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, and father of two sons, explained this aspect of fatherhood: "Being silly is one of the great untalked-about joys of fatherhood, don't you think? Kids love to see otherwise reserved and dignified adults making fools of themselves. When you're about to become a father, everyone tells you about the responsibility, the long hours – nobody talks about the belly laughs."
Speaking of belly laughs, when it comes down to it, all parents just want their children to be happy and healthy. Conveying happiness, joy, and hope is so crucial in developing great children. Let your children know, in word and deed, that you love them. Leave no doubt about that. As a dad, take it on as your goal to provide regular moments of joy in your child's life. And, this has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of money you spend on your kids. It has to do with recognizing life's simple pleasures — reading to your kids, celebrating a birthday, playing catch in the backyard. Dads can take an active role in all of those moments.
Dan Yaccarino's wonderful children's book, Every Friday, provides a great example. Written from the son's perspective, the book tells the story of a much-anticipated weekly father-son breakfast date. The story is not just about a man buying his son pancakes. It is about the time they spend together in their leisurely walk though the city and the bonding, trust, and love that results from their routine. This boy can count on his dad.
Of course, in addition to being there for the joyful times, fathers also need to prepare children to deal with life's disappointments and challenges. Dads can do this by listening to their children, providing appropriate support, and offering advice from their own experience. One good way to operate is to reflect on your own childhood and your relationship with your father. What things did your father do well? What aspect of his parenting style can you emulate? What didn't he do well? What aspect of his parenting style can you avoid repeating?
So, jump right in from the start and become involved as a dad. And, don't be afraid to make mistakes or to adapt your parenting style if you find that your current style is not effective. Again, no father is perfect, but you should know that being there for your children is a precious gift in itself. By taking on kid-related tasks (from changing diapers to helping with homework) and house-related duties (from vacuuming to paying the mortgage), you are showing responsibility for your family. And that is something that benefits everyone.