The Good Dad: Relax, You’re Probably a Fine Parent

Published in the “HomeOwner” special section of Sports Illustrated,

April 22, 2002, Volume 96, No. 17

Some 30 years later, Roland Warren still remembers the day his father let him down. “He was supposed to pick up me and my friends, and we sat on the curb for hours. Eventually the other kids wandered off, and I was alone.” He waited till dark, but his dad never came, and Warren never found out why.

With today’s heightened focus on child safety and well-being, any decent dad would cringe at the thought of putting his child in such a stressful, precarious situation. Still, even on-time fathers are only human. They make mistakes and are subject to doubt: “Am I any good at this?” Probably, as just posing the question shows a desire to do well. But can dads do better? Yes. Roland Warren did.

The boy who waited in vain for his father grew up to become president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting responsible fatherhood. He’s also a dad to two teenage sons. From both work and life, Warren has learned some important lessons. “What you think makes you good at being a dad is not necessarily what your kids really need or want,” he says. “You have to look at it from your children’s point of view.”

One way to do that is to think back to your own childhood experiences. Like Warren – heck, like any of us – you can probably remember when your dad said or did the wrong thing (and you both knew it). They may not be the fondest memories, but you can use them to sharpen your perspective on the indispensable role you play in your kids’ lives.

“Most dads today have survived distant fathers of their own, dads we loved but could never get close to, dads who baffled us and sometimes left us with more questions than answers,” says Dr. Kyle Pruett, father of four, professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center and author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. “It may have been hard growing up with that, but it’s led to a generation of men who’ve resolved to be better dads.”

To these doting fathers, it’s all about nurturing their kids in a way no mother could. “From more than 20 years of research and clinical practice, it’s become clear that fathers provide a unique presence in the lives of their children,” Pruett says. “They are loving and supportive, but at the same time encouraging kids to reach, to explore and to overcome frustration and failure. It’s a special and essential style of parenting.” Here are some keys to mastering the elements of that style.

Be There

“Kids need to know they can rely on us. Period,” Pruett says. That happens by being there when you say you’re going to be there. Not just for major events like graduations, birthdays and the big game, but also for the day-to-day stuff at home like sitting down for regular meals and saying goodnight.

Be Honest

Kids look to you for answers, but your greatest gift may be admitting when you don’t know. Also, don’t just scold the kids without explanation; tell them what’s on your mind.

Be Comforting and Protective

Sure, a time-honored part of you job is being the provider, but kids need more than food and new Nikes. They want an ally who protects them from life’s slings and arrows and, later, teaches them how to defend themselves. And even more than disciplinarians, kids need fathers who are always on their side. Whether they’re phoning from the principal’s office, the county lockup or the U.S. embassy in Thailand, they need to know you’re there for them. That’s why they call it unconditional love.

Be Playful

Your kids need ample goof-off time with you, whether it’s having a catch, reading books or just watching the game together. Luckily men possess an almost preternatural capacity for play.

Having these core qualities is one thing, but it’s quite another to put them to work every day. This is where a lot of dads get flummoxed, so we have a few suggestions culled from experts and veteran dads to get you moving in the right direction.

Forget “Quality Time”

Guys frequently say they want to spend more time with their kids but never have the chance to get so-called quality time. News flash: Your kids don’t distinguish between quality and quantity. Better to spend a few minutes with them whenever possible than to put it off until some magical weekend when you can have many hours together. Another good idea is to schedule blocks of time for your kids. “Treat it like an important meeting or a trip, or anything else you wouldn’t dream of canceling,” Warren says. “Mark the time in your planner or calendar, and don’t let anything intrude on it.”

Talk – a lot

Children may feel distant from their dad even if he’s always around. Why? Because he never talks, except to lay down the law. “Kids need to know what you believe and feel, and especially how you feel about them and what’s going on in their lives, “Pruett says. “A lot of dads are just too close-mouthed.” Open up. To break the ice, ask your children about their day, then talk about yours. Be sincere and listen. This gets everyone familiar with the people and forces shaping all of your lives, and it’s one of the best ways to truly get to know one another. And, of course, you should tell your kids all the time that you love them.

Give the Kids Total Access

If you can’t see your kids every day, you can still communicate, says Mark Merrill, president of Tampa-based Family First, a nonprofit research organization devoted to strengthening family ties. “If you travel a lot or you don’t live with your kids, call or e-mail them every day,” Merrill says. He adds that kids should always have a phone or pager number or e-mail address where they can reach you at any time. “Knowing you’re accessible is another ways your kids know they can rely on you.”

Get Physical

Guys have always struggled to show kids physical affection. “It’s easier when they’re little, but as your children get older, it gets harder,” Warren says. “You both become more self-conscious.” Break yourself out of that rut right now. “I’ve heard too many adults talk about standing over their father’s deathbed, longing for him to touch them, hug them, even just give them a pat on the arm,” Pruett says. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Hug your kid today. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Behave Yourself

Youngsters won’t always do what you say, but they almost always do what you do. Bear that in mind as you’re dealing with cashiers, haggling with salesmen or weighing your tactical response to the dope who just cut you off in traffic. “A big part of a dad’s job is to teach his children the protocol of life,” Merrill says. If your children see you lose your temper or treat people without respect, expect them to act the same way toward others – including you.

Show Love

The interactions kids watch most intently are between you and their mother. If you all live together, it’s vital your children see your affection and respect for Mom. Does this mean kids shouldn’t see the squabbles that are a natural part of married life? Not at all. “But if you fight in front of your kids, make up in front of them too,” Merrill says. “Kids need to see you can have arguments and still love each other.”

If you and your children’s mother aren’t together, and she’s still a part of their lives, at least make sure you show her respect. Remember: Even if you don’t love her, your kids do. Knocking her doesn’t help you or your relationship with your kids.

Keep Your Cool

When your kids do something that boils your blood – hey, they’re kids, so it’s part of their job – don’t react in anger. Just walk away. “Too many dads do genuinely harmful things in the heat of anger, from hitting – which is unacceptable – to doling out a punishment that really doesn’t fit the crime,” Merrill says. And keep your mouth shut until you have your temper under control. Telling a kid what a dummy she is or chastising him for blubbering like a baby ultimately will make you both feel awful. Harsh criticism and insults leave deeper bruises on your kids than any physical blow. So take 10. When you return you’ll be in a better frame of mind to discipline them.

Admit Your Mistakes

Kids don’t expect you to be flawless. In fact, they would prefer if you weren’t, so they don’t have to live up to impossible ideals. “There’s this notion that admitting mistakes to your kid undermines your authority,” Pruett says. “In fact, it earns you more respect and influence over your children. One of the best things my father ever said to me was, “There are no mistakes, only lessons.”

And those lessons can last a lifetime. “Talking to your kids about the mistakes you make can bring you closer together,” Warren says. “They’ll love you for it. They’ll never forget it. But if you blow them off without apologizing or admitting to what you both know was wrong, they’ll never forget that either. And I’m speaking from experience here.”

Stephen C. George, father of Thomas and Anna, lives and writes near Philadelphia.