I will never forget the morning my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. It was early – like, stupid-early – she had been feeling weird and tired for a few days, and we knew that pregnancy was a possibility, theoretically speaking. So, she went into the bathroom while I rolled over to shield my eyes from the bright light and tried to fall back asleep. I had just drifted back into a weirder version of the dream I was having before she woke me up by calling out to me from the bathroom.
Sarah: “Hey, sweetie?”
Sarah: “I’m pregnant.”
Me: “Mmhmm…” (back to sleep)
Me: (awake and annoyed) “What?!”
Sarah: “I am…with…child!”
Me: (sitting straight up with a blank stare) “ummmm…okay…” (trying to wake up, process the information, and also react the way I know she wants/needs me to) “Awesome! That’s awesome!” (I don’t think I fully reached the level of visible excitement she was hoping for, but I’m gonna blame that on being half asleep)
Then I laid back down, WIDE AWAKE, and stared at the ceiling, thinking, “holy (insert expletive of your choice), I’m gonna be a dad…I have no idea what I’m doing!
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every father reading this can remember that moment – that mixture of confusion, disbelief, excitement, and utter terror. Being a Dad is one of the greatest honors and most terrifying responsibilities that a man will face. I realize this is a blog centered on the outdoors, but it is ultimately designed to help us all become better men through hunting and the outdoors. And I can think of few other areas where our manhood will be tested as much as the arena of fatherhood.
Sadly, far too many of us fail this test, and a tragic number fail by never trying in the first place. The continually growing statistics of fatherless children in America is heart-breaking, and I would argue it is one of the primary sources of a whole pile of our worst societal ills (though that’s a deeper post for later). Now, this post will turn real ranty in a hurry if I start trying to explain all the reasons a father is absolutely crucial to the general well-being of a child. So, for now, let’s just say that a strong, supportive, and consistent father-figure in a child’s life (boy or girl) is one of the best indicators of how that child’s future is going to shape-up.
Okay, if you’re still reading, you probably don’t need convincing that dads are important. In fact, you are most likely a dad yourself and are starting to get pissed wondering when I’m going to say something helpful (bear with me…we’re almost there). Here’s where this article is coming from: Dads need to know how they can win. The way men are wired, we don’t want to play if we don’t think we can win – we just don’t. And when faced with the prospect of being a dad, it appears from the outside that there is no way to actually win that game. A lot of new dads were raised without one, and those of us who did have dad around probably have a mixed bag of good stuff we want to emulate and bad stuff we hope we never do. The tough thing about parenting is that you ultimately don’t know if you won or lost for about 20 years, and there’s no scoreboard in sight. So, while you’re in the middle of it, you don’t actually know how you’re doing. And because the stakes are so high and we have a constant IV-drip of how stupid dads are from the world around us, most of us assume we’re probably losing.
Depressed yet? Yeah, me too! So, here’s what I want to offer today: here are three simple habits or behaviors that you can bake into your fatherhood DNA starting right now. None of these are huge or earth-shattering, they don’t cost any money, and every single Dad on the planet can do these. I don’t have a doctorate, I’ve only been a dad for a decade, and I’m figuring out a whole lot of this as I go. My only advantage is years of research and a career of working with kids, teenagers and families in the local church setting. None of this makes me an expert by any means, but I firmly believe if you can be consistent in these three areas, you will absolutely win the fatherhood game. You’ll have bad days, your kids will have bad days, there will probably still be an unfortunate goth phase around 14…but ultimately your kids will have that stable foundation only a dad can offer that will help them turn into the functional adults we all hope and pray they will become (you know, so they can finally move out of your house). Okay, enough jibber-jabber…let’s go!
This sounds obvious, but the difference it makes to your children is immeasurable! The first layer of this is the simple stuff: be on the sidelines of the soccer games, piano recitals, synchronized swimming matches (are they called “matches”?)…whatever it is, you should be there consistently. I’m not saying if you miss one band concert at age 12 your kid will be selling meth by 13, but when he reflects on his childhood, you want his memory full of your smiling, cheering face in the stands. What this communicates to your kid is: “You are important to me, I believe in you, I will be there for you.” Kids need to know these things, and your presence communicates it far more believably than words.
Speaking of your presence, be present when nothing in particular is going on. If you’re catching some downtime on the weekend or you just got home from work and all you want is a cold beer and some peace and quiet, you’re going to have to power through. When your kid greets you at the door with a 19-minute story about a bug he saw on the playground, put on that smile and try to pick out the heart of what he’s telling you. When she wants you to read that storybook you’ve read EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. for the last three months…take a deep breath, and read it again. Believe me, I get that this is easier said than done. I come home mentally drained like anybody else, and what I would love more than anything is a few moments to myself. But, I have simply forced myself to view the 15 minutes I have on the way home as my decompression time, and I pause to make sure I am re-focused and ready to engage with my family once I’m parked in the driveway.
One final thought – and this one may cut a little deeper – if it is at all within your control, stay with your kids’ mother. If that ship has already sailed in your life, this is not meant to guilt you or stir up old regrets or anything…your job is now to show up as much as you are able and make the best of this tricky situation. For all those who are still with the mother of your children – don’t bail! If it’s been a really tough season and you’re fighting all the time and you’re both wondering if you’d both be happier if you ended it – you won’t! When we’re in a crappy situation, it always seems like things would be better somewhere else…that’s just human nature. But, the statistical reality is that you will more than likely find yourself more miserable down the road if you cut bait and run. It may take some counseling, it may take some forgiveness and healing, but if you can find a way to make it work with your wife, it will be one of the best things you can do for your kids.
What I mean by this is that you should be your kid’s biggest fan, and they should know that because you tell them all the time! I’m not talking about never correcting your kid or telling him that he’s the best at everything he ever tries (he won’t be), but you should be regularly pointing out to your kids things that they have done well. Encourage them when you see them get it right, point it out when you notice a natural ability starting to develop, and praise them for progress as you see it (even if they moved their math grade from a D to a C…it’s still improvement).
One of the things that pains me the most at kids sporting events (and I’ve been to plenty) is watching a family walking out after their game and dad is in that kid’s ear pointing out missed plays, dropped catches…whatever went wrong. I’m not even talking about the obnoxious dad who is screaming like a maniac on the sidelines…that guy has his own issues (probably related to his own father). I’m just referring to the dad who wants his kid to succeed so bad that he immediately starts down the list of ways his child could have performed better in that game. I’m not saying that’s a bad conversation to have – I’m just saying that isn’t the time. Your kid just put himself out there, played a tough game, and wants to drink his complimentary Capri-Sun and chill out for a minute. Ultimately, what he wants to hear is that his dad believes in him and his proud of him. Right after the game, Dad, focus on the positive – the play that went well, the effort you saw, some glimmer of improvement in his batting stance…whatever. Later on (maybe even on another day), have that coaching conversation and work with your kid on whatever aspect of the game you think he could improve upon.
Our words carry weight, dads…a lot of weight! Whatever we say to them, good or bad, will weigh heavier than if virtually anyone else in the world said the same thing. Do you want other kids at school, social media, or some pop star telling your kids who they are and what they are worth, or do you want them to hear it from you? There are a million messages screaming in the ears of our kids, and we need to make sure we speak louder and more frequently than all of them! Yes, you’ll have to correct your kids…you may even have to do the dad-yell from time to time. Just make sure those moments are surrounded by tons of other moments where you encourage, cheer-on, and just say “I love you” as often as humanly possible.
This seems to be one dads struggle to find the middle-ground on, and I’m constantly trying to evaluate if I’m falling too far on either side of the spectrum. We’re either way too permissive, don’t engage in disciplinary issues, or just try to be our kids’ best friend. Or, we go the other way and bark orders and yell and say “no” as a reflex without even considering the situation. I would argue that somewhere around the middle is where we should land. Your kids don’t need an adult best friend (in fact, that’s kind of weird)…your kids need an authority figure who creates boundaries for them. They may bristle under it and argue, and they certainly won’t seem to enjoy it as you set those boundaries, but deep down they actually crave it. Boundaries let kids know that they are safe.
At the same time, if we just say “no” all the time and become that cranky ogre that never lets them have any fun, we aren’t setting our kids up for success either. Aside from wanting your kids to like you when they’re adults (you know, so they can take care of you later), kids need to be taught how to make decisions. When we just become the “no” guy, we typically aren’t taking the time to walk them through why that is our answer. The ultimate goal is that our kids learn to make the decisions we would want them to make anyway, and if we don’t show them how and why we make our decisions, they’ll never be able to do that. Once they’re out on their own or even just having more freedom as they get older, they will simply do whatever sounds/looks/feels good because you aren’t around to say “no” for them.
How about a for instance? Just the other day, my 10-year-old asked me, “dad, am I old enough to have my own YouTube channel yet?” Yes, seems like a weird question, but it’s not the first time in his young life he has asked. Of course, my answer was “no, you cannot have your own YouTube channel yet.” Now, my oldest is very bright and very driven (first-borns, right?), and I could see on his face he was thinking of how to approach the argument he wanted to have. So, I beat him to the punch and began explaining why my answer was no. In this case, the internet is a cold and mean-spirited place! If you have a YouTube channel, anyone in the whole world can see it and comment on it, and buddy you are just not ready to process that kind of feedback coming at you from all over the globe. Not to mention there are some legitimate safety concerns I have with my son just putting himself out there in the video world.
He didn’t argue (he still didn’t like it), but I could see that he at least got it. Sometimes, just taking the time to explain why a boundary exists defuses your child’s desire to rebel against it or fight you on the issue. And hopefully, as he gets older and starts to dip a toe into the waters of social media (whenever we finally let that happen), he will already have a mindset that this is something to be used with caution, and can use it in the way that I would want him to because I took the time to explain it…not just say “no” and walk away.
Dad’s, you are invaluable to your children! Your families need you to be engaged, to step into your God-given role as Dad, and to lead and guide your children to become the people they need to become. If you have already bought-into the lie that you just can’t win, that you’ll never measure up, or that - because of the situation you find yourself in with your kids and their mom – you think you’ve already lost. I get it! And I know that tendency we all have to just throw up our hands and walk away when we feel like there’s no way to win…it’s how we’re wired!
Let me just encourage you that it’s NEVER too late to turn around and make a change. If you’ve been checked out or disengaged, check back in! Put these three tools in your back pocket (they conveniently all start with S…hopefully that makes them more memorable), and just get back in the game. Your kids need it…they deserve it! You, Dad, are needed, and you will be an awesome father as you show up, speak life, and say “no”!