Four Steps Toward Being a Better Father

dswanson-four-steps

Before having children, we fantasized about what it would be like to be a father. For some, it was peanuts, popcorn, and baseball games. For others it was placing their chair and table in their upright positions and flying away to far-off places. But one thing’s for sure. The fantasy never entailed working long hours, stressing about finances or career obligations, or fighting with a wife over how to raise the kids.

As a father of three, I decided that I was not going to settle for being the absent father who accepted the reality that, “being a good father means being a provider. And being a good provider means limited time with my kids.” I wanted to be the father I fantasized about, and I was willing to do whatever it took. Not too long ago, I was forced to do just that.

About five years ago, I was working 50-60 hours a week in a busy practice as a child and family psychologist in Encino, CA. My practice grew and grew until I was working 6 days a week, most days until 9 at night. I wanted to cut back because I wanted to be at home with my children. But I was afraid that if I cut back on my hours, people would assume that my practice was full and they would stop referring me. This would mean potentially losing our home and my practice.

A very smart and kind pediatrician friend encouraged me to take the risk. “You need to be at home with your kids,” he advised me. “If you don’t have any available times for clients after school, parents will take their kids out of school to see you.” After hearing my oldest son complain of my absence, I became determined to take my friend’s advice and reduce my hours. I decided that I would leave the office by 6 pm and I would not work on weekends. This was an incredibly stressful time. But fortunately the advice my friend gave me was correct. People did bring their children in during school hours. We didn’t lose our home. To this day, I believe it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Sure, we had to take a step down in lifestyle, but I don’t think my kids care. I don’t know if they really even noticed.

Today, I coach their sports teams, we jump in the trampoline, we have Nerf gun wars at home (yes, in the house!), and we just got back from the Leo Carrillo Tide Pools where we hunted for starfish. I am the father in my fantasy. In my practice, I am often visited by fathers who wish they could be the father in their fantasy. These fathers often ask the question, “Where do I start?” When we evaluate their “father fantasy,” we usually come up with four core areas on which they choose to focus. I have laid out these four areas below.

Time

Tim Russert, former host of NBC’s Meet the Press and author of Wisdom of Our Fathers, said, “You can shower a child with presents or money, but what do they really mean, compared to the most valuable gift of all—your time? Vacations and special events are nice, but so often the best moments are the spontaneous ones. Every moment you spend with your child could be the one that really matters.”

The fact of the matter is that you are either a “present” father or a father who is “absent.” You cannot plan for life. You will never know when your child will utter his first word. You will never know when he will take his first steps. And you will never know when his first girlfriend will break up with him. Life happens and it is not subject to a plan. You are either there or you’re not. Planning vacations and special time are very important in moving closer to your family. Your child will always remember the Disneyland trips, the skiing vacations, and snorkeling in Hawaii. But will you be there when he is forced to deal with the pains of life?

Discipline

“Boys want to know three things,” says 72-year-old Lew Powers, a 20-year veteran Boy Scout director. ‘One, who’s the boss? Two, what are the rules? And three, are you going to enforce them?’ To have a strong relationship with a boy, you have to be the boss, and a very kind one. Only set rules that you can enforce, and always enforce them. Then you have the basis for a relationship. From here comes respect and more importantly, trust.”

Being a good father means you discipline from a plan, not from emotion. Most fathers tend to shy away from traditional behavior systems, relying heavily on their ability to “discipline in the moment.” I have found in my practice that this is not a good way to go. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I find that it is one of our male weaknesses, such as failing to ask for directions when we know we are lost. In both cases, we need to use a map. And a behavioral map entails sitting down and plotting your course. What are your rules? Are you willing to enforce them in the same way every time? What will you do when you become aware that your child has left you severely frustrated? Will you yell? Will you say hurtful things that you’ll later apologize for? Make your map and chart your course.

Some brief notes on discipline:

Discipline strategies used by mother and father should be the same.

  • 3 strikes you’re out
  • 2 warnings

Consequences and rewards used by mother and father should be the same

  • Time out
  • Restriction

Raising your voice to get your child’s attention is not a problem as long as:

  • You are not out of control.
  • It doesn’t shame your child.
  • It doesn’t put your child in a position to care for you.

Raising your voice does have its risks. Your children will meet the bar that you set:

  • If you yell, they will yell.
  • If you shut down, they will shut down.
  • If you keep your poise, they will keep theirs.

DON’T HIT! This damages a child’s self-esteem and ability to bond and attach emotionally.

Modeling

What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a man? How should one handle anger or frustration? How should a boy treat a girl? Is it okay to smoke? Is it okay to swear? You can tell your child whatever you want. But studies have shown that up to 70% of what we hear and believe in a conversation is nonverbal. That’s right, 70%! You can’t put out your cigarette as you tell your child not to smoke and think your message is believable. You can’t hit your child for hitting his brother and expect him to see the logic in that. If your actions do not model your message, you child is more likely to do what you do—not what you say.

Be the father you want your child to grow up to be. Treat your wife the way you want him to treat women. And by the way, if you have a daughter, treat your wife the way you want your daughter to demand being treated by a boy. Handle anger in the manner in which you wish your child to handle their own. Modeling has a deep impact on your child.

Here are a few tips I’ve come across:

  1. Value their mother: Children value themselves and others more when they feel that their mother and father value one another.
  2. Perspective-taking (seeing things through someone else’s eyes): Show your children the importance of respecting the perspectives of people they love, even when they disagree with them.
  3. Cooperation: Show how to participate willingly in work, problem-solving, or task-accomplishment.
  4. Negotiation: Show your children how to work out solutions to problems that respect one another’s perspectives.
  5. Resourcefulness: Never stop trying to make things better.
  6. Motivation to improve: Approach disagreements with the attitude of making them better, not worse.
  7. Compassion: This gut-level reaction to your wife’s pain, discomfort, or anxiety includes sympathy, protectiveness, and willingness to help but not control. It recognizes that your wife is different from you, with her own temperament, set of experiences, beliefs, values, and preferences.
  8. Good will: Learning a positive attitude toward the people they love will greatly improve your children’s chances of having good relationships. Think good thoughts about your wife, and always give her the benefit of the doubt.
  9. Affection: Showing affection toward their mother makes children feel more secure.
  10. Relationship investment: Successful relationships require that people care about and occasionally do nice things for one another.

Affection

What better feeling can there be than getting a hug and a kiss from your child? In short, your affection goes a long way in building confidence and a sense of value in your child.

A long-term study headed up by Harvard University psychologist Carol Franz found that children who had been hugged, kissed, cuddled, and babied throughout their childhoods developed a stronger sense of internal security as adults—enabling them to be self-confident, develop closer marriages and friendships, have better mental health, and enjoy more success in their careers.

You can also show affection with wrestling games, storytelling, sitting together, and playing music or singing. Tell your kids they are great, beautiful, and intelligent. And sometimes, affection is expressed not by touch, but by honest, open vulnerable communication.

All in all, I hope that if you are a father reading this article, you take away three things:

  1. Time with our children is brief. We should make the most of it.
  2. You can be the father you fantasized about.
  3. Although tough decisions may be required, developing a plan of action to become to father you wish to be is a must. the end

Image credit: Luciano Tirabassi

2 thoughts on “Four Steps Toward Being a Better Father

  1. Great article and I would add one thing to the “affection” sub heading.

    I think the best gift we give our children is to actually look them in the eye. Television, Internet, Advertisers have no qualms about grabbing our sons and daughters by the ears and drilling deep into their minds through their eyes.

    What a gift it is for a father to stop, put down the distraction and look right at his son or daughter while they speak. It’s a powerful moment for a child to know that for those moments, they are the sole object of their father’s attention.

    Thanks for this very good post.

    -Sean
    http://www.daddyteller.com

  2. Hi David,

    This article is excellent and right on point! I think you’ve issued the kind of challenges that can make us all better fathers.

    I have one contention and it refers to spanking which you did not directly mention. Are you referring to spanking when you say: “DON’T HIT! This damages a child’s self-esteem and ability to bond and attach emotionally?”

    I am a father of four and have found that loving communication and spanking from the heart of correcting a child who has demonstrated deliberate disobedience has yeilded fruit of honest, caring, respectful, obedient and delightful children. I read a book titled, “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” by Tedd Tripp, and from experience, I have found this philosophy to have actually drawn my children and I closer together and increased our love for each other.

    When spanking is administered according to the points in your “discipline” bullet, it is a highly effective and useful tool as a parent to guide your children to becoming the great people that they are destined to be.

    It would be neat for you to meet and interview my family and see what conclusions you would draw from observing us from a clinical point of view.

    Sincerely,

    Russ Zacek

Leave a Reply