When I ask a father what he needs to do in order to be a good dad, I usually get an answer like this. “I want to spend a lot of time with my kids and I want to give them all of the things that I never got”. Then, he usually lists those things: a nice house, the opportunity to play the sport they want, go to a good school, travel, etc. As he talks, I sense an underlying anxiety, questioning whether or not he will be able to deliver these things. He is anxious because he’s a really good dad. With all of his heart, he wants to give his child good opportunities so that he can be successful in life. But if he wants his child to be genuinely successful, he needs to shift the way he sees his parenting.
Most parents, particularly fathers, parent from the perspective of an adult looking at a child. Dads come up with lists of things that they believe are good for kids and then try to fulfill that list. Their sincerity is admirable. But here’s something they forget: what their child wants and needs. In order to know that, they must switch their perspective and see themselves through their child’s eyes. And when they learn to do that, it’s a game-changer. They find that what their son or daughter needs/wants from them is quite simple and not too hard to give.
I encourage dads to think back to their own childhood. I ask them, “What did you want from your dad? What did you need?” This exercise helps them see life from their child’s perspective. When they do this, then they understand what they need to give their own kids.
Dads, here’s what your kids need from you. They will feel familiar because they are the same things that you needed from your dad when you were a child.
Your kids want three fundamental things from you. When you give them these, your child will grow up to feel secure, strong and believe in themself. Here’s what they are.
Attention, affection and affirmation. And they need them from you. Getting them from teachers, coaches and others helps, but attention, affection and affirmation are far more life – changing when they come from you. So the question is, can you give them? The answer – absolutely.
Let’s go through each of them.
Giving another person meaningful attention requires discipline. There are so many distractions: emails, texts, phone calls, work, hobbies, movies, etc., in your life that really paying attention to your kids requires intentionality. You can’t pay attention to your child unless you stop paying attention to other things. No multi-tasking when it comes to focusing on your child. Here are some things that you can practice.
When your kids are young, put away your briefcase/phone/computer, when you get home and go over to your kids. Get down on eye level with them. Ask them how their day was. Look at them. Listen to what they say. Ask them to show you something they made that day. Take a few minutes to play with them. You don’t need to do these for an hour; even fifteen minutes will make them feel loved.
When your kids are older, you can engage in new ways. When your daughter starts dating, meet the boy who is taking her out; shake his hand, look him in the eye and let him know that you’ll be waiting up for her to get home. This makes her feel safe, valued and protected (even if she’s embarrassed and says everything to the contrary). When your son hits his teen years, spend time doing things with him. You can do projects together, go outdoors, talk together. He’s learning how to be a man by watching you. He can’t watch you if you aren’t there.
I’m going to wager a guess that you might not have grown up in a very affectionate home. Maybe your dad didn’t hug you or he never verbally expressed that he loved you (or, he did the opposite and verbally abused you.) Good parenting requires thoughtfulness and intention. And here’s what I want you to know; the very fact that you are reading this, says that you want to be a great dad. You care enough to do a really good job and that means that you will. You can start by doing these things.
Hug your kid(s) at least once a day this week. This may or may not be uncomfortable for you, but do it. It gets easier the more you practice. Giving your son or daughter affection boosts their self – esteem. If your daughter is a teen and rebuffs you, don’t take it personally. She feels awkward about herself, not you. So gently pursue her.
Touch your kids in an affectionate way – give a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the shoulder or on the top of the head with an “I love you!” as you pass by. Fleeting expressions of affection mean a lot to your kids so don’t underestimate their importance. And again, if your child rolls his eyes or pulls away- these are about him, not you. So don’t back away.
Affirming your son versus affirming your daughter can look different. Words can have a profound impact on both, but words are particularly important for girls and women because we bond through conversation. Men and boys bond through physical activity; doing things alongside one another.
Your daughter will feel affirmed when you say “I love you”. Regularly. This isn’t a one-and-done situation. She also needs to know why you love her – and I’m afraid that saying “I love you because I’m your dad” doesn’t cut it. Be specific. Find something unique and honest and let her know what it is about her that makes you love her so much. (Do NOT refer to her appearance or performances – talk about her character.) When you tell your daughter that she is strong, resilient and smart enough to make good decisions as she gets older, she will.
Affirming your son is a bit different. You need to spend time with him. Giving him your time communicates that you find him important enough to put aside all other things. Find an activity you both enjoy: golfing, go-karting, building a shelf together, working in the yard, building legos, or working out together. Make sure that you don’t always drag him along on the things that you like to do. Some of the most meaningful interactions you will have with your son will come from doing physical things together that you both enjoy.
Every son needs to get his dad’s “stamp of approval.” He needs to hear from his dad that he has what it takes to be an authentic, successful and good man. If you are a dad, you know exactly what I mean. You wanted it from your dad so now give it to your son, whether or not you got it as a child. Literally tell your son that you are proud of him (even if he hasn’t been “successful”, he needs to know that you believe in him as a man.) So find ways to affirm him as a good man.
When you, Dad, give these three things to your child, he or she is ready to fly. Your daughter will be resilient, smart and able to navigate anything life throws at her. Your son will feel strong and able to accomplish whatever he wants because he knows in his heart, that in his Dad’s eyes, he has what it takes to succeed.