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Being a father...

I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers recently and their role and importance in our lives. As some of you may know, my father sadly passed away a few weeks ago after a long illness and, because he was such a strong and wise presence in my family, we’re struggling a little to adapt to life without him.

If you too have lost a much-loved father, or feel you never had the relationship you hoped or needed with your father, you’ll know their absence is palpable. And yet somehow it’s less easy to define what fathers offer their children compared to mothers. Maybe this is partly because the role of fathers has evolved considerably over the last couple of generations with dads taking on a wider variety of jobs within the family and becoming more intimately and closely involved in the day-to-day interactions with their children than in the past.

This means today’s fathers are learning to carve their own niche with their children which may be quite different from their own father’s relationship with them when they were children. And, for good reasons, the father/child relationship is not supposed to be the same as the mother/child relationship.

It has only been in the last decade or so that scientists have started to research the effect of a father on a child’s development. The headline finding, and personally I’m not surprised by this, is that the love of a father has as deep and positive contribution to how a child develops as the love of a mother.

So here are a few thoughts about what fathers – whether traditional, stay-at-home, adoptive, same-sex, single, divorced, stepfather or indeed father-figure – offer their children...

This absolutely isn’t intended to be a straight-forward “this is how Dads need to behave or interact with their child” because the wonderful thing about parents, and I believe in particular dads, is that they have their own strengths and views and values and goals, and part of the joy (and sometimes frustration!) of parenting is finding our own way...

Being present

It seems, from various studies, that dads spend more time with their kids than in previous generations. But it’s not about the length of time, it’s about the quality of time. There are many pressures outside the home, and within it, and of course it gets more complicated when parents are separated. But when dads are able to carve out those precious few moments to spend 1-1 with their child it has multiple benefits for both sides. It is in these quiet moments together – away from emails and homework – that the unique father/child relationship starts to develop.

Children who have regular positive contact with their father tend to regulate their emotions better than children with little or negative contact with their father.

Showing love and kindness

Hugs and cuddles matter! Most dads feel much more comfortable today showing physical affection with their sons and daughters. And it’s a wonderful experience and a great model for sons and daughters when their father feels comfortable expressing kindness and tenderness to them, at any age.

When children feel unconditionally loved by their parent, they are less likely to struggle emotionally or behaviourally in the present and in the longer-term.

And there are other deeply important ways that dads can show their love for their child including showing interest in the child and what the child is interested in. Again, maybe there is a gender-tilt here as personally I had to work hard to show interest in my sons’ passion (obsession?!) with cricket, Star Wars and now Formula 1, whereas my husband found this bit super-easy...

Having fun and enjoying playing

Typically, men play and have fun slightly differently from the way that women do, and most men feel more comfortable being competitive and wanting to win than most women. This is a huge learning opportunity for sons and daughters.

One of the best things dads can do with their children is indulge in a little rough-and-tumble play. It’s a great way for dads to show their children how to be strong and physical, and also aware and sensitive to other people’s feelings. Somehow my father could find that fine line between almost-scaring my sister and I with some of his games with us, so we felt exhilarated and brave, and knowing when to slow down and turn towards us when we got a little overwhelmed. And, no, he didn’t always get it perfectly right, and that was OK, because when he realised it had gone too far, he showed us the joy and grace of a sincere apology.

Giving positive attention and showing pride

Kids love to impress their parents at any time in any way, and they are constantly looking for ways to gain their father’s positive attention (and mother’s too).

If fathers are less involved in the day-to-day moments, it can be harder for them to know what to praise or be proud of, but they can always ask! This ties into spending time and being present. If they’re not sure what their child has been up to recently, they can ask their child to bring them up-to-date and tell them what the child is particularly proud of doing. And those words of acknowledgement and trust from a father are fundamental to a child’s developing self-esteem.

This can be hard for fathers (and mothers) if their parents weren’t particularly forthcoming with positive feedback when they were children. Some of us were brought up with the occasional “well done” so giving lots of regular, repeated, positive feedback can feel a bit strange when we start. But studies regularly and repeatedly show that this is exactly what kids need. They learn to believe in themselves when their parents believe in them first.

Showing understanding

The importance of emotional awareness and intelligence is now widely accepted, so fathers have been released from the role of “stiff upper lip” and holding your true feelings back. Again, it is a huge benefit for sons and daughters when their father is able to recognise and empathise with how they are feeling about things. Dads often have slightly different views to mums, so being able to share your worries and concerns with Mum and Dad, gives you a wider perspective and understanding as a child.

Is it hard for fathers to hold back on immediately offering reassurance and advice when their child comes to them with a problem? Of course it is! When fathers show their child that they aren’t upset or worried (maybe disappointed) about how the child feels, the child gets the best sort of reassurance there is. And the best bit about fathers being brave enough (because it is uncomfortable hearing about your child’s fear or unhappiness) to connect emotionally with your child is that it deepens the father/child relationship and means it is more likely the child will turn to the father for advice in the future. And dads have great advice to offer, particularly as kids get older.

Studies show that children with sensitive and supportive fathers have higher levels of social competence and stronger peer relationships.

Just a couple more things...

The way fathers relate to and interact with their child’s mother has a huge influence on their child’s future relationships. This isn’t about having a perfect relationship. It is about modelling to children how to work together for the benefit of the wider family. Every father and every mother will have disagreements, usually about raising the kids and often about domestic arrangements, and each disagreement is a chance to demonstrate compromise, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills.

Finally, because this is a lesson I now appreciate so much, and yet absolutely didn’t appreciate at the time, there’s something really special about dad jokes (and dad dancing!)...

You know the sort of jokes ….. A bit cheesey and cringey, but simple and straightforward, and pretty wholesome. From around 5 or 6 years old, kids love dad jokes. Later on, dad jokes more often lead to eye-rolls and groans than uproarious chuckles. But these moments have lots of teaching points for children of any age – how to gently diffuse a situation, how to create connection, and how to learn to deal with being embarrassed which increases a child ability to regulate their emotions which boosts their resilience.

Fathers of every kind really matter, and what they have to offer their children is of the utmost significance.

Thank you to all the loving and hard-working fathers, past, present and future. Your children may not always remember to tell you how important you are to them, but your love, support and understanding is much appreciated, and the lessons you teach us stay with us forever