Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi was well-known for a lot of things, most notably his passion for teamwork, commitment and success. Lombardi was driven to succeed, and he knew that winning required hard work and sacrifice.
"I firmly believe that any man's finest hour," Lombardi said, "the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious."
As a father, my wife and children dominate the list of the things that I hold dear, and I will gladly lay exhausted on the field of battle for the cause of protecting and serving my family. I worked with at-risk kids for more than 20 years, and I've seen the positive role that dads play in the lives of their children. I've also witnessed firsthand the devastation that can occur when a child has no father figure in his or her life.
Assessing victory or defeat on the football field is relatively straightforward. It's simply a matter of knowing the rules and how to keep score. Fatherhood is different. There is no off-season. No signing bonuses. No referees.
Yet victory is still possible.
One of the most effective parenting game plans is to simply take advantage of everyday opportunities to love our children and instill the right values in them. To be the best dad we can be is to make every day count.
So, where do we begin? We start with five key behaviors of a healthy, thriving family. These five behaviors demonstrate that small daily investments can make a big impact in a child's life. They are prayer, laughter, time, conversation and dinner. Let's look at each one:
Prayer: More than just praying for our children, prayer allows us to model for them the importance of taking our requests to a loving and gracious God. A few years ago, when I was without a job and our housing situation became unstable, our entire family sought the Lord together every day, and God provided for us in amazing ways. We continue to seek the Lord as a family (we have three young kids) to this day. Family prayer has drawn us closer to each other and to God.
Laughter: Modern science tells us that laughter has many benefits. It can increase blood flow, reduce stress and even help suppress pain. Laughter also has a profound impact on social interactions: Laughter connects us with others. Having fun as a family strengthens your relationships with your children and helps create positive memories. One of the regular ways we have fun is by watching our family videos. We make popcorn, laugh and reconnect as a family while we recall some of our favorite times together.
Time: We all have to choose how to occupy our limited free time, but you will never regret spending extra time with your children. (Watching TV together is not enough!) Ask yourself: Is the time we spend together as a family positive? Does it draw us closer together, or are we simply in the same home at the same time? In our home, Friday evenings are our regular family time. The kids look forward to it and each pick out a game for us to play. I also set aside one-on-one time with each of my kids. We call them "Date Nights With Dad," which include activities like fishing, an evening at the park (with ice cream to follow, of course!) or a wagon ride around the neighborhood. Most of them involve little or no money – just lots of time together. Regular date nights also pave the way for a deeper and trusting relationship as our children grow.
Conversation: Talking is not always the same as conversing. A lot of family communication centers on superficial aspects of our lives such as managing daily schedules and whether or not we are keeping up with our regular duties (chores, homework, etc.). Do you ever set aside time to learn more about your children, to exchange ideas and opinions free from the regular interruptions of life? Can you name the "one thing" that gives meaning to your child's life? Most parents can't. Dads, if we don't ask these questions – and actively listen to the answers – then we may never know our children's fears and dreams.
Dinner: Researchers have found that family members who eat dinner together at least four times a week exhibit improved communication, healthier eating habits, higher grades and fewer problems with at-risk behaviors. The key to family dinners is keeping them free from distractions. Unplug from the world and pay attention to each other. One of the ways my family does this is by having everyone around the table share his or her "highs" (best thing of the day) and "lows" (low point of the day). Use dinnertime to engage in some of the other thriving family behaviors: time, prayer and conversation (and maybe even some laughter).
If your family is lacking in these behaviors, don't despair. We all fall short as parents, but it's never too late to start. No matter the ages of your children, begin today to take advantage of everyday interactions.
Maybe your children are grown and out of the house. You can still pray with them and for them, even if it's over the phone. Invite them to dinner if they live nearby. Take the time to have a conversation about something other than the weather; maybe you'll even get to share a few laughs.
It's time to make every day count.
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Several years ago, when our firstborn was still a toddler, my wife and I were discussing our son's faith development. Looking back, that particular conversation was a turning point in our parenting journey.
Our son, Nicholas, was very young (around 2 years of age) at the time, and Karen and I had differing perspectives on how to approach the topic. But the more we talked, we found common ground. That's because we both wanted our son to have a strong and vibrant faith.
A strong and vibrant faith. Arriving at this common goal was the easy part, but how to get there? My wife and I were raised in Christian homes, and for that we are very grateful. But we also knew that our heritage was far from perfect. Because my wife and I both worked with at-risk kids, we saw how good intentions are not enough if you don't act on them.
Where we landed that day as a couple became a foundational principle for our family. That principle: Pursue Christ. Pursue Him openly and transparently. Live in such a way that throughout the highs and lows of life, others – most importantly our children – would know what it means to serve a God who loves and cares for them and has a plan for their lives.
One of the most important ways our family pursues Christ is through prayer. Prayer is not only a stabilizing factor, but also a catalyst for positive change in our home.
I can't stress enough how important bedtime prayer is for us as a family. It allows us to reflect upon our day. It is also an opportunity to confess our shortcomings before the Lord and a time to acknowledge our need for Him.
Not long ago, our youngest daughter (we have three kids now) experienced a pretty rough day, one filled with not listening to her parents and making really poor choices. That night, as she prepared for bed, she prayed: "Lord, help me to obey better tomorrow. This is what You want and what they want." Her words demonstrated to us how prayer has drawn us closer as a family and closer to our heavenly Father.
Prayer is an area where I feel a particular need to demonstrate leadership as a dad. I find that prayer allows our family to stay humble and contrite before the Lord as we seek him together. Fathers in particular are warned not to exasperate our children (Ephesians 6:4) or disrespect our wife (1 Peter 3:7). (Failing in this area/Ignoring this advice/Ignoring this instruction, we are told, could hinder our prayers.)
A few years ago, our family went through a very difficult time. I was without a job, we'd lost our housing and we had a newborn to boot. Our church offered some assistance, but not being able to provide for my family was very difficult for me.
I felt like God had stripped me of everything, to the point where I was utterly dependent on Him. What did I do? I prayed. We prayed.
Philippians 4:6 tells us, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." I know that a good leader leads by modeling the very behaviors he wants to see in others, and this verse wasn't something to just keep to myself. I wanted my children to know that we serve a God who is more than able to provide for our needs.
So we prayed, and God answered in very tangible ways. Every day we prayed together as a family, and we saw God provide food, shelter and ultimately a job.
Today, whenever we face crises and challenges, we reflect on that difficult time in our lives and we trust God anew to meet our needs and direct our steps.
Renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote, "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God – it changes me."
This sentiment is at the essence of who we are as a family. I want God to change me. I want God to change my family. We came to a turning point early on as parents, and we decided to purse Christ together.
And that is why we pray.
My son Chance is now a teenager, which brings its own set of joys and challenges. A lot of things are changing — for him and for me. Some days we get along great, but of course we have our share of tension and disagreements. Some days he's a knucklehead, and I know I am, too, at times. So I need to be balanced as I relate to him.
On one side is the fun. To help maintain a strong relationship, I've started a regular routine on school days. He goes out in front of our house to wait for the bus; I grab a cup of coffee and join him for a few minutes while he's waiting. He's a captive audience then, and it's a great opportunity to check in, ask him a few questions and just be together.
Oh, yeah, I should probably mention … I do all this while still wearing my bathrobe.
So, as the minutes pass, he'll get this look on his face and just stare at me.
"What's wrong, Son?" I'll ask.
He'll say, "I'm waiting for you to go back in the house."
He never enjoys my mischievous smile at this point. "Dad," he'll say, "don't stand out here! The bus is coming around the corner in a few seconds."
It's probably Chance's biggest fear right now that I — his out-of touch father — would embarrass him more than I already have. If I ever stayed outside in my bathrobe when the bus pulled up — or maybe went to the curb and waved to all his classmates — his life would be over right then and there. So I always manage to be back in the house before the bus gets close.
But, don't you know, I like to have some fun with it. On my way back in the house, I'll flirt with that front door a little bit. "Hmm. You think they could see me if I stood here? How about here?"
He'll say, "Dad, don't!" But he knows I'm just having fun. And I know he'll find other ways to get back at me.
Isn't it part of a father's job to embarrass his kids? Did your father do that? Since we're going to be uncool for a few years in our kids' eyes, we may as well have a little fun with it, right? It's OK to pick them up from school in the oldest car we have, blasting classic rock or R&B out the windows, or start the wave at the next sports event. Maybe we could even wear our favorite Hawaiian shorts around their friends, or pull out the baby album when they bring a date home for dinner.
I do believe we need to have a lot of fun with our kids, and humor will actually help them develop higher creative and coping skills. There's even room for some good-natured teasing, as long as we're sensitive to the possibility of going too far and becoming mean-spirited.
That's the other side — the humility we need to show our kids. Not long ago, I was joking around with Chance and I did go too far. I said something in fun that I later realized had cut deeper. So I went back to him and said, "Son, Daddy has to ask for your forgiveness. The words I said to you this morning and how I said them were not right, and I'm sorry. I have to be more discerning and more sensitive to what you're going through."
As we relate to our children and coach them to be responsible, God-fearing adults, there's a lot of room for humor, energy and fun. Those activities bring more interest and excitement to life, and they provide great bonding opportunities. But we must balance this with self-control and humility. Balanced fathering should be our goal.
I believe that kind of balance is part of what Paul had in mind when he wrote in Ephesians 6:4, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord."
Dads who don't have fun with their kids will exasperate them. If my fathering is always about making sure my son behaves or performs to a certain standard, he'll be frustrated and want to give up. More than once there's been no patience or kindness in my voice when I've said to him, "Chance, why isn't your room clean?" Or, "Son, why do you continue to do that when I told you it needs to be done this way?"
I often stand in front of dads' groups and say things like, "Don't sweat the small stuff. There are more important things than a clean room." Then I'll forget my own advice when I get home. Sure, Chance has to get better at some things — but I should know better, too.
I guess it shows I'm doing OK when I tuck him into bed at night and he reaches out his arms and says, "Dad, I need a hug." There's nothing quite like it.
But then, don't you know, the next morning we'll be in front of our house, me in my bathrobe and Chance giving me that anxious look — with a hint of a smile behind it.
It's good to be a dad.
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As a football coach and now a TV commentator, I work long hours and travel a lot. Doing my job and providing for my family can limit the time I'm able to spend with my wife and children.
I've found, though, that the key to getting the most out of our time when we are together is my willingness to do what my kids want to do — even when they're not necessarily the things I'd prefer to do.
I'm not talking about big, expensive productions like trips to Disney World or vacations in Hawaii. I'm talking about normal, everyday activities like walks in the park, playing on a swing set or throwing a football around in the backyard.
Speaking of football . . . as you can imagine, after a very long and exhausting day of coaching, tossing the pigskin around with my boys for another hour after work wasn't usually my idea of fun. (It's like being an insurance adjuster and finding that your child wants you to work on actuarial tables with him at night.) But it was often what they wanted to do, and my willingness to do it let them know they were important to me; if I could do that at work, I should certainly be able to do it for them!
I saw the truth of this with one of my daughters, too, when I heard a friend of hers ask about me. My child didn't say anything about my job or going to NFL games or getting to meet famous athletes that I work with. Instead she said, "He plays Marco Polo in the pool with me." That told me I was doing something right.
Many times when I was coaching, I'd take the boys to the office with me on a Saturday morning. They might play on the practice fields or use my office equipment to play their video games. I knew they liked being with me — but they also liked stopping for doughnuts on the way home. To tell the truth, I think sometimes they saw the trip to the office as just part of the process of getting to the doughnut shop! But we have lots of great memories of time spent together in both places.
My wife, Lauren, has been a great help in this area. I recall her saying many times when I returned from a long road trip and she was hungry for time with me herself, "Let's do something the kids will enjoy." So instead of the two of us going to a quiet restaurant, we would head to the park or on a family bike ride — or maybe just to our backyard pool for another game of Marco Polo.
In the evenings during the school year, time is at a premium. There are so many things that have to get done, like homework and chores and bedtime preparations. In the little "together time" we have, I've learned to emphasize the kids' interests. So with one or more children, I may find myself playing a computer game, watching "VeggieTales" or listening to one of their favorite CDs.
I mentioned earlier that I don't always feel like doing what my kids want to do. I may be tired, uninspired and just want a little "down time" for myself. But it may encourage you to know that when I'm feeling that way, and I go ahead and push myself to do the thing they're eager to do, those often become some of our best times together. Once I get going on that bike ride or game of catch or computer contest, it's as if I catch a second wind and start to feel rejuvenated. I don't know how psychologists would describe this phenomenon, but I've seen it happen time after time. I take it as God's affirmation that I'm doing a good thing.
I'm busy, and I have a job that requires a lot. But what dad doesn't, especially these days when employees are being asked by their companies to be more productive than ever? That's what I see in Proverbs 24:27, where it tells us to "finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready." Our work is important, and we have an obligation to our employers.
The rest of that verse goes on to say, however, "after that, build your house." To me that's a reminder not to neglect the rest of my calling as a man. We build our houses by taking care of the needs of those within — our wives and children. A big part of that is doing the things they want to do in the time we have together day by day.
So here's my suggestion to you: Even though you don't have as much time with your children as you spend on the job, work as hard at your parenting as you do in the office or factory. Give your kids as much effort as you give your employer.
And realize that some days — maybe a lot of days — just as you need to work through some tough challenges on the job, you may need to do some things with your kids in the evening that wouldn't be your first choice. But they're the things your children want to do with you, and going along with their plans is the best way you can say, "I love you, and you're so very important to me."
That's our job as dads, and it's also our privilege.
I could see that, for this season of my life, every morning was going to start out the same. I would get up, say my prayers, read my Bible and head to the kitchen to cook my little girls breakfast. A bit different from heading to football practice or morning workouts, I must say.
My wife had just given birth to our fourth child — my first son — and I was excited. "I love this li'l man of God!" I declared. So with three little girls (ages 2, 3 and 5) all smiles and ready to roll every morning, I embraced the routine. It became a joy and honor to fix breakfast, have talks, and plan the first part of the day — the one called, "Eat, pray and play until Mommy gets up."
One morning I was making one of our family breakfast specialties — Fruit Explosion Oatmeal. (In our house, oatmeal runs neck and neck with pancakes.) Seeing my three princesses chowing down on their breakfast was always a delight.
As I watched them eat, with their heads practically in the bowl, I noticed that my 2-year-old had oatmeal on the side of her face. Without making a big deal of it, I said, "Hey, Beautiful, you have oatmeal on your cheek."
To my surprise, in unison and without hesitation, all three of the girls looked up. Then all three grabbed their napkins and wiped their faces!
I laugh with joy every time I think about this story. Do I have three vain daughters? Of course not. The simple fact is that since the time they were born, I gave them a name — even more, an identity.
From birth my princesses have been told they are beautiful, loved and valuable.
Names you call your child will leave a mark. Choose them carefully. Your kids will hold on to whatever names you give them.
And remember: If you don't give them names, somebody else will.
That takes a little time and effort, though, more than many fathers spend with their children. If your time is limited, make sure you're using some of it to give your child an identity. Even if you have to spend some of the time correcting or disciplining, try to start and end it identifying your child in a positive way. A child who knows you think he or she is great will stand much taller and stronger when hard times come.
Give your kids an identity and they'll grab it. That identity will become their stance, their way to approach life. It will become the fuel for their confidence. With confidence your child will have a greater ability to make his or her own decisions.
That leads to setting healthy boundaries. Children with strong, positive identities decide for themselves what they will and won't do, what they like and don't like. That helps cultivate self-respect, which kills most forms of peer pressure and creates focus, direction and clarity.
The result: a child of substance. A child of substance usually finds success — and even more importantly, significance.
Want children of substance? Start by naming them thoughtfully and giving them the identities they need. Then nourish those identities by maintaining a loving relationship.
So how do you do that in the middle of everyday life's busyness?
At our house we try to remember that great relationships aren't built of laws or rigid rules, but of vulnerable communication, honesty, healthy conflicts, order and direction. We have some things we try to do daily, weekly and monthly to nurture those qualities. The activities themselves aren't the goal. The goal is to love on our kids, teach them, mold them, and release them to be whatever God has called them to be.
Here's an example — the end of a typical day at our house. After the kids take baths, brush teeth and put on pajamas, we sit in a room together and ask two questions:
The answers let us know what's on our children's hearts and minds.
Then there's a typical week at our house. I have a one-on-one conversation with each child, each week. The child's needs and my schedule determine the when, where and how long of this "convo." During these conversations I make sure to tell my kids I love them; you can never say "I love you" enough, but make sure you say it on that day. I also affirm them; I love telling them about the good I see in them.
Finally, there's our typical month. Once a month, one-on-one, the girls and I go out and hang. Sometimes it's eating, sometimes it's shopping—even if we don't buy anything. Sometimes it's going to a park, sometimes it's going to a bookstore. I call it Daddy Dates. Their purpose: To let my children know that I'll stop my world to be with them.
We do these things so that I can mark my kids with love. I want them to know who they are in Christ and that they're fearfully and wonderfully made.
Not long after my firstborn son turned two, he was running down the hallway when he tripped and fell—hard.
"You all right, Man of God?" I called.
"Yes," he said without hesitation.
I smiled. He knows his name! I thought. I'm giving him his identity.
Have we missed some opportunities to build our kids' identities? Of course — but we've made some imprints, too.
I hope you'll go and do the same today.
Do you and your family have dinner together most nights? If you don't make a habit of doing so, you might be setting your kids up for heartache later in life.
In the interest of full-disclosure, this is something that we have to work at in the Daly household. We've been making progress, but we still have a way to go. With a hectic travel schedule and long days at the office, sometimes it's tough to be home in time for dinner.
Yet there's plenty of evidence that making dinner together a family priority is definitely worth the effort.
Consider the following:
So, if your family has fallen out of the habit of sitting down together on a regular basis, what's the best way to get started again? It might sound trite but it's nevertheless true: Take it one night at a time.
Don't set yourself up for failure by trying to go from rarely eating together to dining as a family for seven nights in a row. Set aside one or two nights and protect them with great fervor. Once you get into a habit of a couple of nights together, try to add a couple more.
Keep in mind, though, that it's not just about sitting around a table together. There might be a benefit to proximity, but you want to get the most out of the experience.
It will likely take some planning to maximize a dinner with children. My wife works hard to ensure that our family is together around the table for the evening meal, and I greatly appreciate her efforts.
It would be much easier to just set out a plate of sandwiches or something that each of us could swipe as we scurry through the kitchen on the way to our next commitment. Instead, Jean makes sure we all enjoy table time together, without interruptions. We make time to talk about the boys' day at school or just catch up as a family.
There's room for fun, too. We've been known to participate in a barbarian dinner, using only our hands to eat. No silverware allowed. To say that our young boys love Barbarian Night would be an understatement.
Sometimes, Jean will delay dinner so that I can eat with the family even if I have to work late. I recently learned from a friend that his family sometimes employs this same approach: His wife might give the kids a snack at 4:30 to tide them over until he gets home from work at 7:30. Then, the whole family sits down together. He says it's one of the best things his wife does for their family.
In today's fast-paced world, the dinner table might be the only place where families can gather together in the same room during the week. Your children will be under your roof for a relatively short time. Before you know it, they'll be away at school and tackling life on their own. One day you'll wake up and wonder where all time went.
Don't let the opportunity to eat together pass your family by. When we eat together with our children, we're nourishing more than our bodies. We're nourishing our hearts as well.