Hey Dads: Commit to participating in your kids’ lives

Gentlemen!

Its time to rise up together against our shared tyranny! Its time to cast off the bonds of prejudice! We fathers will no longer serve as second-class caregivers. We will no longer allow ourselves to be relegated to the workshop, to the lawn mower or the easy chair! We will no longer hide our true emotions behind talk of the NFL, NBA, PGA, WCW and WWW! We must not allow ourselves to be left out while mothers bathe and coddle and nurture our children! Take a stand to make today and every day from this moment forward a genuine father’s day! We fathers are equal co-parents, competent, caring and able, regardless of gender!

Or not?

Are you content to be little more than the family’s bread-winner? The beer-and-cigars-and-profanity, John Wayne, emotionally distant, “wait until your father gets home” type of dad? You say your father was that way and you grew up just fine? That’s no excuse. Break out of the mold. Make your own choice today. Take the risk of letting your guard down, setting aside the remote control, turning off the computer, looking your kids’ mother in the eye and saying, “I want to be part of my children’s lives today.”

For better or worse, right? But different than marriage, you can’t divorce your kids. You’re in for the long haul. If you make the commitment to participate in your kids’ lives today, to give to them more than money and a roof over their heads, to give to them emotionally and physically and spiritually every day, its going to hurt. Real life, day-to-day in-the-trenches parenting means bouncing across the emotional spectrum with your kids as they grow. It means holding them close when they’re tired and needy and sick, it means waiting up for them when they’re late and talking them through the pain and celebrating their triumphs. It means taking emergency calls at work, driving two hundred miles a week between practices, thinking ahead to pack snacks and uniforms and permission slips. Taking an equal part of the parenting responsibility means putting aside your selfish needs, cooperating and negotiating with the kids’ mother and other caregivers, letting yourself be wrong and embarrassed and criticized and whined at and vomited upon and learning new things every day. Genuine fathering hurts. But becoming a genuine father to your children and a partner to their mom is probably the single most important challenge you will ever face.

The traditional arm-chair dad’s challenges are nothing by comparison. Earning a raise at work? Building a shed outback? Fixing the washing machine? New spark plugs in the car? Sure they’re dirty and sweaty and no less necessary, but they are trivial compared to the challenges of actively participating in and guiding a child’s growth.

Fathering is about the moment-to-moment process, not a specific outcome. It’s a constant up and down, back and forth relationship full of uncertainties. There are rarely rights and wrongs about raising kids, just lots of scraped knees and spilt milk. For every moment of success, for every graduation and accomplishment in your kids’ lives, there will be a hundred minor catastrophes like so many waves in the middle of a vast ocean. Fathering is the art of riding those waves, even if you never get to shore. If you need the certainty of success, go fix a toaster. The process of fathering takes a different sort of man.

Are you a father? Genetic paternity isn’t enough. A man worthy of today’s celebration is woven into the fabric of a child’s emotional life. A genuine father or daddy or papa can see the world from the child’s point of view, can follow the child’s lead and can dance and cry and sing without embarrassment. A genuine father is neither a distant tough guy who instills fear nor a push-over parent subtly undermining the kids’ other caregivers. A genuine father understands that empathy and understanding are key, that communication is a must, that adult needs very often come second, that firm and reasonable limits build confidence and that the concept of discipline emphasizes rewards.

Do you know your kids? A father’s empathy and understanding for his kids is an active, demanding process. Getting to know your kids takes a lot more than reviewing quarterly grade reports and planning annual vacations. It means getting out of your own head and into theirs. Do you know what music they prefer? Who their friends are? What they hope and dream and fear? Can you let them know these things about you?

Don’t let the inevitable “I don’t know” and “Nothing” responses put you off. When your kids know that your interest is sincere, when they don’t feel like an employee called to report in front of the big boss, they’ll let you in. Try making learning about one another a pleasant daily ritual. Listen to their words and ask for more each day. “How’s that project coming?” and “Did you see Billy today?” express enormously more than generic, “How are you” and “What’s new?”

Or try asking about emotions instead of events. “What happened today that made you feel happy?” Sad? Mad? Scared? When you learn to listen and care instead of criticizing and suggesting how to do it better, they’ll begin to invite you in more.

Do you communicate with your co-parents? Fathering is a team sport. It requires the maturity to cooperate and negotiate with the kids’ mom and other caregivers, no matter the nature of your adult relationship. Happily married? Separated? Divorced? Sharing caregiving with grandparents? Teachers? Neighbors? If the team is to succeed in raising healthy kids, it must work together to establish reasonable and consistent expectations and outcomes.

A caregiver who exposes his son or daughter to his negative feelings about his co-parenting partner is actively hurting that child. A good father is able to put his own feelings on the back burner in order meet his child’s needs first.

Are you a good role model? Last, but not least, a good father understands that he is a role model to his kids. Expect your children to do as you do, not as you say. How often have you seen your father when you look in the mirror? How will you feel when your kids see you in their own reflections?

Parenting Pointer

Happy Father’s Day!

Fathers, give your kids and co-parents a present today: Write each one a letter about your experience as a father. How do you see yourself? How would you like your son or daughter to be like you? In what ways would you like them to be different than you? What are your fondest memories, your deepest hopes and dreams for yourself? For your co-parents? For your kids?

Invite your kids and co-parents to write about you as a father. How do they see your strengths and weaknesses? What do they wish was different? How would they like to be more like you? These thoughts can be sealed away in a time capsule to be read at some future date or can be exchanged and discussed today, to become the seeds for growing together and learning about one another.

Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. He writes and speaks internationally on subjects concerning child and family development. His latest book is “Holding Tight/Letting Go” available from unhookedbooks.com. Learn more about Garber and his child-centered services at HealthyParent.com. Find a collection of Garber’s popular press articles on his blog at bdgarberphd.wordpress.com. Garber welcomes your comments at papaben@healthyparent.com.