Are you a good guy looking to be a great parent? A father examines what qualities make men better dads.
In the two years since my wife and I have had our two children, I’ve searched through quite a bit of parenting resources to complement what my own experience has taught me. Here are some of the ideas and advice that have been most valuable in my efforts to become a better dad.
Choose Your Role
In many parenting relationships, the mother’s more authoritative caregiver status means the father has less involvement with the children. The main problem, fathering experts point out, is that many dads are all too happy with this arrangement. Dr. Christopher Green, MD, pediatrician and parenting author of Babies! A Parent’s Guide to Enjoying Baby’s First Year, identifies this “learned helplessness” as an act that allows dads to get out of unsavory parenting tasks by feigning incompetence. His suggestion is for the parents to work out “the ground rules of cooperation and shared responsibility from the very beginning.” In my own experience, this can involve taking the night in shifts with sick kids and having whoever’s closest change the diaper or make the bottle.
In all fairness, most dads wouldn’t consciously choose to avoid fulfilling their children’s needs; however, some mothers make it too easy for them to do that. Fathering guru Armin Brott points this out in his book The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be, Second Edition. He describes the common scenario in which Dad picks up the baby to change his diaper, and when the baby starts to cry, Mom steps in and says, “Here, let me do it.” Brott’s counsel is similar to Dr. Green’s: Dads should arrange with their partners not to take over for them if they start struggling with the child. In fact, Brott cites research showing that parenting involves more behavior that is learned than innate, which means that mothers and fathers alike have to learn to become parents—it’s just that mothers typically get much more practice.
If dads are content to parent passively, letting their spouses shoulder most of the burdensome tasks, they miss out on crucial bonding opportunities with their young children. Real love means work, as M. Scott Peck observes in his book The Road Less Traveled. The corollary here is that if dads don’t put in the work, they deprive themselves of developing genuinely caring feelings for their kids. What’s more, they also risk facing a lack of demonstrated love from their partners, who are either too busy with or engrossed in the children to pay attention to them. In his book Becoming a Father, Dr. William Sears, MD, suggests that if men don’t actively involve themselves in caring for the children from the newborn stage onward, their wives will “pick up the slack” and develop an attachment to the child that can leave dads feeling alienated.
Communicate about Rules
Dads who do decide to contribute equally will find it necessary to do as Dr. Green counsels: Sit down with their partners and plan. This extends to more than just the caretaker tasks; the advent of children in a relationship means the sudden end of going wherever you want whenever you want, and it takes a good schedule to keep track of who will be with the kids at any given day and time.
Once children’s behavior begins to test limits—anywhere between the first and second years—parents need to agree on what those limits are. Communicating with other caregivers means first and foremost that partners are on the same page. In her book Supernanny: How to Get the Best from Your Children, Jo Frost suggests that parents ask themselves questions such as, “What type of behavior do you both consider unacceptable? What are you prepared to be more relaxed about? Where do you differ?” Frost asserts that “it is essential to reach an agreement so that you have one set of house rules that everyone can follow. If Mom and Dad don’t present a united front, children very quickly learn to play one off against the other emotionally.”
As an example of the kind of plan we’ve had to make with our two-year-old, my wife and I decided yesterday not to offer Alexis any other kinds of food for dinner besides the ones we initially put on her plate. Every day we’re faced with similar decisions: What to allow her to take into the bath, how we respond to her pushing her cousins and 10-month-old brother, how capable she is of cleaning up her drawing materials and books after playing with them. This degree of planning seems especially important when parenting occurs in shifts—as it does with parents working different hours or with divorced parents who share custody. As a dad, it’s vital for me to know not only which rules my wife has established as the mother, but also to participate in making those rules.
Maintain Realistic Expectations
I distinctly remember how incredible it seemed that I’d actually thought I’d been busy before my first child was born. “What did I do with all that free time?” I wondered as I fed, bathed, and cleaned up after her. I managed to make some attempts at efficiency, typing emails with one hand while holding Alexis in the other and pinning her bottle between my neck and chin. After only a few months, though, she became able to kick the keyboard tray in as I typed, and if she wouldn’t sit or play quietly, I had no other choice than to quit whatever I was doing and give my full attention to her.
This cramp in available time can be very frustrating for new dads, but it’s something that fathers of kids—especially those under age five—have to consider in planning not only their daily activities but how much time they want to devote to career and other pursuits while their children are young. In his book Finding Time For Fatherhood, psychologist Dr. Bruce Linton, PhD, remembers that “when our two children were little, it was obvious why it was impossible to get much private time. Day-to-day tasks were like digging a hole in the sand on the beach: No matter what size the hole, the water would fill it up. The demands of being both physically and emotionally present for infants and young children are pretty much full-time work for both parents.”
My younger brother found this out as a stay-at-home dad to his three-year-old son. He had just finished his master’s degree and was starting a new job several months later. In the meantime, his wife went back to work full-time as a nurse, and Kory tried to take care of Cameron while working on small contract website projects from home. “It just didn’t work,” he says. “Given Cameron’s constant interruptions, I managed to get only an hour or so of work done on pretty much any given day.” Fortunately for their collective sanity, Kory lowered his expectations for what work he could get done while caring for Cameron—and most importantly, he maintained realistic expectations for Cameron’s playfully intrusive three-year-old behavior.
Engage with Your Children
Dads can provide financially and administer consistent, fair discipline, but unless they connect emotionally with their kids, there will always be something lacking in the family relationship. In his book The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity, and Life in the Family, psychologist Dr. Mark O’ Connell, PhD, promotes a balanced model of masculinity in which men don’t have to be either sensitive and nurturing or competitive and authoritative—they can (and should) be both. Dads with this breadth of relationship with their kids can wrestle and tickle but immediately assume the role of disciplinarian when necessary. But it takes engagement—in which the father is aware of his kids’ and his own feelings—to do this.
Engagement is often achieved most effectively through daily rituals. Ryan from California explains how tucking in his son each night gives them the chance to bond. “It’s during these times that I get a little more of a glimpse of his personality and I get to ask him questions and see his heart come out as he sings and learns to pray,” he says. Bonding doesn’t have to be through bedtime rituals, though. Ryan continues, “I would recommend that dads find a specific bonding time with their kids throughout the day, whether that would be special wake-up time or after-school time, or playing catch in the yard.”
Focus on the Big Picture
There’s another saying that’s true about parenting young kids: The days are long, but the months fly by. Becoming a better dad requires daily effort, but if guys are willing to pitch in with the childcare, help plan how to discipline consistently, and sacrifice time for their kids, the love in their relationships will long outlast the work it took to build them.