Fathers are just as essential to healthy child development as mothers. Psychology Today explained, "Fatherhood turns out to be a complex and unique phenomenon with huge consequences for the emotional and intellectual growth of children."1
Erik Erikson, a pioneer in the world of child psychology, asserts that a father's love and a mother's love are qualitatively different. Fathers "love more dangerously" because their love is more "expectant, more instrumental" than a mother's love.2 A father brings unique contributions to the job of parenting a child that no one else can replicate. Following are some of the most compelling ways that a father’s involvement makes a positive difference in a child's life.
Fathering expert Dr. Kyle Pruett explains that fathers have a distinct style of communication and interaction with children. By eight weeks of age, infants can tell the difference between their mother’s and father’s interaction with them.
This diversity, in itself, provides children with a broader, richer experience of contrasting relational interactions. Whether they realize it or not, children are learning, by sheer experience, that men and women are different and have different ways of dealing with life, other adults and children. This understanding is critical for their development.
Fathers tickle more, they wrestle, and they throw their children in the air (while mother says . . . "Not so high!"). Fathers chase their children, sometimes as playful, scary "monsters."
Fathering expert John Snarey explains that children who roughhouse with their fathers learn that biting, kicking and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.3 They learn self-control by being told when "enough is enough" and when to settle down. Girls and boys both learn a healthy balance between timidity and aggression.
Go to any playground and listen to the parents. Who is encouraging kids to swing or climb just a little higher, ride their bike just a little faster, throw just a little harder? Who is encouraging kids to be careful? Mothers protect and dads encourage kids to push the limits.
Either of these parenting styles by themselves can be unhealthy. One can tend toward encouraging risk without consideration of consequences. The other tends to avoid risk, which can fail to build independence and confidence. Together, they help children remain safe while expanding their experiences and increasing their confidence.
A major study showed that when speaking to children, mothers and fathers are different. Mothers will simplify their words and speak on the child's level. Men are not as inclined to modify their language for the child. The mother's way facilitates immediate communication; the father's way challenges the child to expand her vocabulary and linguistic skills — an important building block of academic success.
Educational psychologist Carol Gilligan tells us that fathers stress justice, fairness and duty (based on rules), while mothers stress sympathy, care and help (based on relationships). Fathers tend to observe and enforce rules systematically and sternly, teaching children the consequences of right and wrong. Mothers tend toward grace and sympathy, providing a sense of hopefulness. Again, either of these disciplinary approaches by themselves is not good, but together, they create a healthy, proper balance.
Involved dads help children see that attitudes and behaviors have consequences. For instance, fathers are more likely than mothers to tell their children that if they are not nice to others, kids will not want to play with them. Or, if they don't do well in school, they will not get into a good college or secure a desirable job. Fathers help children prepare for the reality and harshness of the world.
Men and women are different. They eat differently. They dress differently. They cope with life differently. Girls and boys who grow up with a father are more familiar and secure with the curious world of men.
Girls with involved, married fathers are more likely to have healthier relationships with the opposite sex because they learn from their fathers how proper men act toward women. They know which behaviors are inappropriate.
They also have a healthy familiarity with the world of men — they don't wonder how a man's facial stubble feels or what it's like to be hugged by strong arms. This knowledge builds emotional security and safety from the exploitation of predatory males.
Boys who grow up with dads are less likely to be violent. They have their masculinity affirmed and learn from their fathers how to channel their masculinity and strength in positive ways. Fathers help sons understand proper male sexuality, hygiene and behavior in age-appropriate ways. As noted sociologist David Popenoe explains, "Fathers are far more than just 'second adults' in the home. Involved fathers — especially biological fathers — bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring."4
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I don't know about you, but it's easy for me to think of something good I did as a father and then hang my case on that: "Remember that amazing weekend we went skiing together? That was really fun, wasn't it? Doesn't that prove I'm a good dad?"
That series of questions has a logical answer, though your children may not dare to say it: "Yeah, Dad, that was a great weekend. Where were you the other 51 weekends of the year?"
Research by the National Center for Fathering has helped us find ways to measure how involved dads are in their children's lives. If you want to see how you're doing in this area, here are seven statements to consider. How well do they apply to you?
Even before your child can understand, get used to talking to him or her in a conversational tone. You may discover your toddler will sit in rapt fascination as you describe the details of your work or the intricacies of the zone defense. The point is to help your child grow up thinking, Dad has always talked to me about stuff.
Be patient when your kids ask questions. When they're very young, that may be all they seem to do! At that age they actually think you know all the answers, and you may be tempted to fool them as long as you can. But sometimes kids need to hear you say, "That's a good question. I have no idea what the answer is!" Find out together.
Get comfortable in your kids' world and welcome them into yours. Teach your child early the concept of "riding shotgun with Dad." Be on the lookout for projects you can do together — or simple parts of larger tasks that a child can do with you. Play the time-honored game called "Hand Daddy the Tool."
Too often, family time isn't protected against time requests from others. But you can "make appointments" on your schedule with each of your kids and your wife. If someone wants to claim that time, simply say, "I've already got an appointment then that I can't break." Every family needs some time that's protected.
Who taught you to ride a bike or shoot a basketball? What about flying a kite, changing a tire, driving a stick shift? Make a list of skills you learned as you grew up and decide which ones you'll pass on to your kids. Spread these out over time and keep them age-appropriate. Don't forget to be patient, too.
Being married to a teacher, I can tell you that most dads could be much more involved in their children's education. Do you know the teachers, coaches and administrators who have the biggest impact on your child? Meet them. Compare notes with your wife. It makes a good impression when both parents visit with the teacher.
This seems like a no-brainer, but for too many dads, it's a no-clue. Can you name your child's three closest friends? Where would you start looking if she was suddenly missing? What's his favorite ice cream? What career does your child dream of having when he or she grows up? We need to continuously update our mental profiles of each of our children. We want our children to think, My dad really knows me.
When our children are very young, we usually figure out what makes them laugh. A ticklefest, for instance, may send them (and us) into gales of laughter.
Do everything in your power to keep the laughter and fun in your relationship with your kids. Watch for activities that you and your child like — and enjoy them often. If you don't know yet what you both like, experiment. At the very least, find out what your kids love to do and join them in the fun.
"Daddy, can we build a birdhouse today?" my 7-year-old daughter, Makenah, asked me early one Saturday morning as I was knee-deep in a "honey-do" list. Weeks earlier, I had promised Makenah we would build a birdhouse someday, but now I hesitated, thinking about my never-ending project list. Finally, I decided that "someday" had just arrived.
We spent the afternoon in the garage measuring, cutting and piecing together spare cedar planks. Makenah colored arrows, directing the birds to the food. As we worked, our talk drifted to home schooling.
"Makenah, why do you want to be home-schooled?" I asked.
Her response astounded me. "I just like you guys. I like being home with our family."
Amid the hustle and bustle of our birdhouse project, time stood still. We had just experienced a moment I'll always treasure. Had I not set aside my agenda and taken several hours to build that simple birdhouse, we never would have uncovered that wonderful moment.
Seven weeks later, memories such as this one were all I had left of my family. As we drove home from a relative's wedding one stormy evening, our minivan was caught in a flash flood. The rushing torrent swept me out the driver's side window, and about a half-mile from the highway, I somehow managed to pull myself up the south bank of the flooded creek.
I was the only survivor. My wife of nearly 12 years and all four of our children went home to heaven.
As my grief gushed forth and reporters clamored for a slice of the story, my "life of no regrets" came into the spotlight. I had no regrets because I had cherished my family while they were still alive, devoting generous amounts of time to them each day.
As parents, we all have the best intentions of spending plenty of time with our families. But amid our hectic lives, we notch out 15 minutes of "quality" time because we believe that's all we can squeeze in. We hope to create an unforgettable, treasured moment with our child before moving on to the next task at hand.
But the reality is, we can't plan the treasured moments we long for any more than we can plan a miracle or a Christmas morning snowfall. We all know how fleeting those moments can be — when you are walking down the trail and see a shooting star together; when you are fishing and your child shares his heart; when you are eating at the kitchen table and everyone bursts into laughter.
For these treasured moments to emerge, it takes sizeable chunks of time to foster them. It takes deliberate choices in everyday life: eating meals, walking around the block, going to the store, repairing the house or fixing the car together. These everyday settings naturally give way to remarkable moments.
In the daily details of family life, filled with seemingly mundane events, we can choose to generously share our time with our children and capture those cherished moments.
The kitchen table is a wonderful starting place. Ours had seen so much life: spills, bills, birthdays and holidays, turkeys, cookies, cakes, pizza, ice cream. A kitchen table is a simple object yet such a powerful tool for bonding a family. The mealtime experience can create memories that endure a lifetime.
Taking children on errands and to work also creates precious opportunities. It builds a rapport that paves the way for free-flowing conversation. I took my kids on business trips regularly, and because I did, we savored many priceless moments together.
Despite the perpetual pain of missing my family, I have peace because I cherished them while I could. I built that birdhouse with Makenah — seven weeks before it was too late. We spent quantity time with our children; I have no regrets.
Today, start living a life of no regrets with your family. Make a memory. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow.
Don't expect corporate America to recognize how much fathers are needed at home. The employee's family life isn't a part of the annual report, nor can it be measured on the bottom line.
If you're chalking up a lot of overtime, then here are ways you can jog loose a few more hours at home:
Work smarter. What's your body clock? Are you a morning person? Or do you do your best work at night? If you get more done in the morning, perhaps you should begin working earlier in the day (if your company has flex time). That way you can get off earlier and beat the traffic home, thus saving you even more time.
I do most of my creative work — writing and editing — in the morning because that's when I feel most productive. When the post-lunch doldrums arrive, I turn my attention to less-taxing tasks, such as answering my e-mail and returning phone calls.
Skip going out to lunch. Yes, it's nice to be served a prepared meal, but by the time you're seated, given a menu, order an entree, wait for the food to arrive, eat, ask for the check, make the payment — well, say sayonara to a huge chunk of time. And that doesn't include the minutes lost driving or walking to the restaurant.
If you're working past 6 or 7 p.m. because you lingered over lunch, that's not good stewardship of your time. Bringing your own lunch is cheaper, faster and healthier. If you need a change of scenery during the noon hour, take your lunch to a nearby park or company picnic area.
You also should consider taking a 30-minute lunch. My father, who worked in the construction trade, always had a half hour for lunch. That meant his workday ended at 4:30, which gave him time to coach my Little League team.
Think through any promotion. Does it mean more hours? Will it lead to more travel? Is the money worth it? What would you do if your boss offered you a raise — albeit modest — but said you might have to put in eight hours of overtime? Would you take it? Perhaps the promotion means 10 days of out-of-town travel each month. What would you say?
Live closer to work, or consider relocating to a smaller city. That suggestion is easier said than done, isn't it? For openers, it may be hard to sell a house, and some of us don't want to live in neighborhoods close to work. Or we like where we live: The kids are established in school, and we're active members of a local church.
But living closer to work can be a huge benefit. By cutting your drive time to a manageable 10 to 15 minutes, you might gain another hour or two a day. That's often enough time to see your daughter's soccer game or coach your son's baseball team. You can retrieve up to 10 hours a week. Think about how many family activities you can do with that extra day!
Reserve the weekends for the family. If you let work — the Monday-through-Friday variety — encroach on your weekends, you're headed for misery. Christopher, a salesman for a marketing firm, still puts in 50- and 60-hour weeks, but he's stopped working on weekends. "Saturday and Sunday are for the kids," says Christopher. "They should know that from Friday night to Sunday is family, and that we're going to do something together, whether it's playing baseball, going to Sea World or whatever."
Plan your week. From the beginning of their marriage, Don and his wife, Rhonda, have gone out for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee every Sunday night. Shortly after the waitress clears the plates from the table, Don and Rhonda reach for their personal calendars. For the next hour, they go over their schedules — work, church activities and kids' programs — for the coming week.
Believe God's promises. Gregory used to work 11 and 12 hours a day, but after five years of burning the candle at both ends, his marriage fell apart. When he became a Christian awhile later, Gregory remarried. Inside, he felt different about his reasons for working so much.
"I first read God's promises, then I really started to believe them," he said. "Especially the one where it says that God will provide for all your needs. I thought, OK, Lord, I'll slow down and trust You to bring in enough work so the business can survive. These days, I won't work more than 10 hours a day. I'm not always able to get what I want, but we always have what we need."
Tim Miller stood in the foyer of the White House and looked around. He had reached the pinnacle of his career. As a Secret Service agent since 1991, Tim had recently been temporarily assigned to presidential detail — his childhood dream.
It was October 1994. He had just left the stairs leading to the President's private quarters when he heard a rapid popping sound outside. Then glass began shattering. Immediately, Tim's earphone crackled to life with reports from the uniformed officers outside that someone was attacking the White House. Tim sprinted around the sidewalk outside the fence. The shooting seemed to have stopped, but there was pandemonium on the street in front of the White House. Secret Service officers had a man handcuffed on the ground.
Francisco Martin Duran had remarked to friends that he was going to kill the President. No one took him seriously until he drove to Washington and, surrounded by tourists, opened fire on the President's residence. As he stopped to change magazines, two civilians wrestled him to the ground and held him until uniformed agents arrived to arrest him. Tim took the man into custody and performed the initial interview.
Driving home that evening, Tim replayed the events in his mind. He felt good, and this was right where he wanted to be — taking part in life-and-death matters of national importance, the culmination of his years as a Marine and as a policeman.
Yet he could never dispel the nagging thought that maybe his job wasn't worth it. His wife would be upset that he was late and that he had missed another family dinner.
Tim loved his wife and children dearly, but it seemed that they always got the short end of the deal. Being a Secret Service agent was a lifestyle, so when his career conflicted with his personal life, the job had to take precedence. His family was paying a high price for his success. He worked three out of every four weekends, missed his wedding anniversary while riding camels around the Egyptian pyramids protecting Tipper Gore and missed his daughter's birthday while protecting the President in Hawaii. But his family knew that he loved them, didn't they?
Although the Secret Service has the highest divorce rate of any law enforcement agency, Tim was convinced it would never happen to him and his wife, LaDonna. But a knot formed in his stomach as he remembered her saying a week or two earlier, "Tim, I feel like a single parent."
This comment confused and frustrated him. He should have been enjoying life; he was right where he had always dreamed of being. Instead, the knowledge that he was there at the expense of his wife and kids left a bitter taste in his mouth. And they weren't the ones to blame.
In the months following the shooting, Tim traveled more than ever. His job continued to call him to important tasks and exciting destinations. He stayed in the palace of Saudi Prince Abdullah and protected Israeli Prime Minister Rabin just three weeks before Rabin's assassination.
Then one day, on his way to the White House, Tim heard Dr. Dobson on the radio saying, "Men, if your career is causing you to miss out on your family, you need to pray and ask God to provide you a job where you can be a true husband to your wife and a good father to your children."
Those words represented the final blow to his dilemma. Tim found himself in tears, and he immediately made the decision to find a new job. It wasn't an easy choice. He didn't know what God planned, but his family would no longer sit in second place.
Tim left the Secret Service and became a U.S. Customs agent. His position as a Senior Special Agent in the U.S. Customs Office of Anti-Terrorism gave him the immense responsibility of implementing a nationwide plan to safeguard our country's borders from terrorist infiltration and attack.
He thought that he was making a sacrifice for his family at the time, but it became clear that the choice to put his family ahead of his career was like giving up a fistful of mud for a chest of diamonds. Tim experienced greater blessing than he had ever imagined.
Once Tim was prepared to give up his career, God not only blessed his family but also gave him a job he loved. He now makes a better living and enjoys weekends with his family. Currently, as a Senior Department of Homeland Security Liaison to the FBI, Tim has enormous responsibility helping to safeguard our country.
He wouldn't give anything for the relationships he has built with his family over the last seven years. "My son, Aaron, got married last year," Tim says. "And one of the best moments of my life was the day that he asked if I'd be his best man."