A recent Pew Research Center study found that 95 percent of fathers surveyed believed that parenthood is essential to their overall identities. They’re more involved in their children’s schooling and after-school activities than ever before and are experiencing greater stress in trying to manage it all. Some fathers report feeling confused or being unsure about how to involve themselves in their children’s lives. For example, a blog post from Parents magazine covered “12 reasons fathers might not want to spend more time with their children,” which included barriers like waiting too long to become involved, feeling more comfortable with sons than daughters, and feeling like attempts to connect with children were unsuccessful. So how can fathers find ways to support and deepen their relationships with their children? Here are some tips.
1. Develop a Dad Vision Statement
Before people apply for jobs, they generally polish their resumes and write cover letters suggesting the ways they believe they are prepared to do the job. Developing a dad vision statement is a similar task. John Badalament, in his The Modern Dad’s Dilemma book, suggests fathers should create dad vision statements to guide dads as they think about the types of relationship they want with their children. Thinking about the kind of relationships fathers want to have with their children sets their intentions for future interactions. The more specific statements can be, the better able these statements can guide fathers’ behaviors towards and with their children. In other words, these statements are essentially goals fathers have for themselves. Some guiding questions for fathers who are preparing their vision statements: What do they hope their children will say about them in 20 years? What do they hope they won't say?
Active listening is not a skill limited to fathers, but it is an important skill for fathers to engage in with their children. This creates relational resilience, which means that the father-child relationship can endure stresses and strains. There's many resources online to help bolster active listening skills. Want to test how good of an active listener we are? A quick assessment involves asking ourselves: What activities do my kids like doing? Who are their friends? What are their interests? If we can answer these questions, then we are doing a great job of active listening.
3. Create Traditions
This is an especially important task for newly divorced fathers who likely will experience change in their routines. For example, if children are going to Dad’s house on weekends, what can they depend on happening Friday nights when they first arrive? I once interviewed a divorced father who said he always took his children to the grocery store when he first picked them up for the weekend. He said he liked it because he was able to catch up with them about their week as they picked out what they wanted to eat that night. New routines and traditions can be simple, but are important for children experiencing transitions that divorce brings. What can they depend on happening Friday nights? How will holidays and birthdays be celebrated? Creating traditions can help children (and dads!) feel safe and secure when they are adjusting to divorce. This example doesn’t have to be limited to just divorced fathers, however, as developing special routines and customs help solidify father-child relationships.
“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us.” —Umberto Eco
My students often talk about their relationships with their families during class. One day, I asked them to think about what they wanted to ask their dad but couldn’t or haven’t for whatever reason. A lot wanted to know about how their fathers fell in love with their mothers and others wanted to know how fathers felt when they became dads, but others went a little deeper. For example, one wanted to know if her dad was upset that he didn’t have a son and another wanted to know if his dad missed him since becoming distant after the divorce. It's clear that fathers play vital roles in their children’s lives, so setting fatherhood goals for their themselves, listening to their children, and creating unique traditions can help create and maintain strong father-child bonds. In those in-between moments, fathers can make a world of difference to their children.
Badalament, J. (2010) The modern dad’s dilemma: How to stay connected with your kids in a rapidly changing world. Novato, CA: New World Library.