Dads in Progress

Insight on being a father today.

But while fathers generally strive to show their love for their families and be there for important occasions, they continuously struggle with striking the ideal balance between work and family life. Whether it’s multitasking at the ball game or tuning out of a conversation because they’re preoccupied with “work stuff,” fathers are feeling the crunch, and it doesn’t serve them or their children well.

Despite shifting expectations, many men remain more comfortable and competent at the office than at home. Dave, a 43-year-old lawyer, captures the sentiments of many dads. “To tell you the truth, my role at work is much clearer than my role at home,” he says. “I know what I’m supposed to do in the office, and I can consult with a colleague when there’s a problem. At home, I depend on my wife to keep me in the loop and I’m unsure when to help out if she doesn’t ask. In fact, I feel like I get more respect in the office than I do at home. I guess no one ever taught me how to be a good father.”

At work, men typically speak the language of facts rather than feelings. Conflicts are solved intellectually rather than emotionally. And that’s not a bad thing when it comes to business decisions. The office approach to fathering, however, doesn’t bode well for emotionally connecting with children. To take the leap from having a successful career to becoming the “all-around Dad” for your family, as a father you need to express your feelings to your loved ones and leave your work in the office. 

Think about how important your role as a father is. Your child depends on you, looks up to you and emulates your actions. Research tells us that boys who are well-connected to their fathers do better in school and are more likely to stay out of trouble. And by the way, the material things you give your child won’t build your child’s character or make him or her feel closer to you. The quality time you spend with your child will.

Don’t rush your child like you rush yourself at work. Patience pays great dividends whether you’re teaching your child to ride a bike, helping him with homework or discussing what’s upsetting him. Feelings are the building blocks of intimacy; express them and you’ll be rewarded with the close relationship that you covet.

For encouragement, ask yourself how your child feels when you’re not available, such as when you have to miss dinner, a school play or a basketball game. Do you often promise you’ll be somewhere for your family, and then you have to bail because of something work-related? What are your real priorities? Do you want to get an A in career and a C- in fathering? If you don’t,  begin working on your relationship with your child.

Here are five pointers to assist you in your mission.

  1. Enter your child’s world. Look around your children’s rooms to see what they’re interested in. Posters, music, games and mementos all provide clues to your children’s personalities. Next display curiosity. As children love to teach their fathers things, they’ll happily show you how to find a Web site or play a favorite computer game. Seek opportunities to talk. Find a comfortable place, a good time and a topic of mutual interest. Frequent opportunities for father-child conversations include moments while driving in the car, during late-night snacks and when your child appears bored to tears. If you have difficulty communicating in person, use e-mail. Even short e-mail messages can segue into meaningful conversations. And when you talk, try to begin on a positive note. Don’t lecture kids, or you’ll quickly lose your audience.
  2. Lose the stereotypes. Who says that real men don’t show weakness? Express your feelings when you can and encourage your child, especially your son, to do the same. Forget the expression “It’s no big deal” when your child gets upset. It is a big deal, and your child likely needs to talk about it. You also do, if you’re going to be an emotionally connected father.
  3. Identify your feelings. Listen to your body. If you feel tense, think about what’s bothering you and try to talk about the issue. Sometimes men get choked up, which is a sure sign that something is brewing. When you say goodbye to your son as he heads off to camp, are you inclined to tell him to take care and pat him on the shoulder? Instead, squeeze out the phrase “I love you and I’ll miss you.” Your child needs to know what you feel. Children shouldn’t have to infer that their parents care for them. Want additional help? Ask your wife, partner or child to identify moments when you seem dishonest about your feelings. I guarantee your loved ones will happily oblige— and catch you in the act.
  4. Read between the lines. If your son says it’s fine that you miss his school play, but wears a sad face, pick up on it. Say, “I know you’re upset; I feel badly, too. Maybe Mom can videotape the play, and we can watch it together over the weekend.” Expressing your feelings helps your child to follow suit.
  5. Use actions and words. Men often connect with children through playing sports, doing things together and just hanging out. When you’re doing the standard stuff, find a way to discuss serious subjects. Talk about how the bully in school made your daughter feel or how your son fears not making the town swim team.

You’ll notice many signs that you are beginning to have a closer relationship with your child. Your child will ask for your help when it’s needed, and share happiness and sadness with you. And during occasions big and small, your heart will glow with the warmth that comes from knowing you have been the father your child needs.