The more time you spend with your children, the more attuned you will be to their emerging abilities. Those fathers who spend little time with their children frequently either underestimate or overestimate the developmental progress of their sons and daughters. If you underestimate your child's competence, you won't provide adequate challenge or stimulation. Your child will be bored. If you overestimate your child's skills, your unrealistic expectations will prove to be a frustrating and unpleasant experience for him and you. In either case, your child will be less motivated to interact with you in the future.
The more time you spend with your children, the more realistically you will be able to assess their capacities and the more aware you will be of their particular talents and sensibilities. You will, therefore, have the optimal opportunity to provide challenging and stimulating interactions. You will discover not only what they enjoy doing, but how they enjoy doing it. (For example, adult rules may be inappropriate when playing a game with a 6-year-old. There are probably a hundred different ways you can play a game with a basketball.)
And, don't forget to let your children win, at least some of the time. No one enjoys playing something at which they always lose.
Your time is precious to both you and your child. Your willingness to give your time to him sends a message: You are important. A father who gives of himself implicitly communicates his love and respect for his child. And if you, the person your child respects most in the world, believe he is worthy of your undivided attention, your child will bask in the sense of his own importance.
Perhaps I need not mention the obvious: There is nothing more valuable for our psychological well-being than healthy self-esteem. You can help provide that for your child. And when your child grows up, you will relish the pride you feel and savor the knowledge that you had a hand in cultivating the person she has become.
As parents, we do not have as much control as we would like over our children's lives. We wish our children were more popular. We wish our children were less awkward. It pains us to see them hurt, rejected by their peers. We wish we could protect them from all of that. But we can't.
However, the closer the relationship we have with our children, the greater our opportunity to provide them with self-respect and self-acceptance. Less involved fathers may facilitate the opposite reactions. For example, in a recent article published in American Psychologist, Dr. Louise Silverstein writes: "Research clearly documents the direct correlation between father absence and higher rates of aggressive behavior in sons, sexually precocious behavior in daughters, and more rigid sex stereotypes in children of both sexes."
Your child is exposed to many influences. And the older he becomes, the more he is likely to adopt his peer group's frame of reference. But the closer the relationship you have with your child, the more likely your child will continue to identify with you. You will, therefore, be in an advantageous position to instill your positive values and increase the likelihood that they will be accepted. The more love and respect (as opposed to fear and anger) your child has for you, the more likely it is that he will incorporate his sense of you in himself. He will act more like you.
It is to be expected that your son will be more likely to identify with and feel closer to you than your daughter may. However, you will still be a terribly important role model for her if she feels a loving connection between the two of you. And she will be more likely to choose a man who will reflect your positive traits for her lifemate later on.
The more time you spend with your baby or your 5-year-old, the better at fathering you will be. Given the fact that fathering does not come naturally and must, instead, be learned, you will gain a sense of self-satisfaction as you become more accomplished at it.
In the case of your relationship with your children, the old adage, "The more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it," readily applies. For as you sense how increasingly important your child feels you to be, you, in turn, will feel an increasing sense of self-importance.
Your children will be gone soon.
As your children reach later and later developmental stages, you will look back with amazement and wistfulness at how quickly it went, how quickly your their innocence and childlike dependence on you evaporated. "Where was I when they were growing up?" fathers ask themselves. "Why didn't I realize then, how important they were to me?"
Unfortunately, for many men, looking back upon their lives does not produce satisfying reflections. Questions such as, "What did I do with my life? Did I attend to what was really important?" are met with aggrieved answers. When asking, "What did I accomplish?" oftentimes we find our replies to be hollow. When you reach that stage of life when you are prone to evaluate the choices you made, I want your answer to be a much more satisfying one.
If you approach fathering as one more task, one more job, you almost guarantee that it will not be an enjoyable one. If you appreciate the benefits that you and your child can derive from your interactions, you will act with enthusiasm and expectation. Your eagerness will infect your child, and you will both know that the other cares, that the other loves.
The more your children separate from you, the more they will be shaped by their peers and by their own culture. We increasingly fret over their well-being as they slip away from our protective shield. But we can lay a foundation that will enable them to make the right choices. We can ensure that they feel loved, so they do not reach out for recognition in destructive ways. And when they are conflicted and cannot make up their minds, we can create a relationship that invites discussion and is open to guidance.
You cannot undo your childhood. You can never receive what you deserved from your own father. But you are in the fortunate position of seeing to it that your child has the parent he is entitled to have. You have been given the chance to do it differently, to do it better, to do it right. Make a list of what you resolve to do more of with your child.
Our tendency is to imitate what we have seen in our own fathers and to cast our expectations after those. Don't repeat the mistakes your father made. Being a better father to your children can help heal the disappointments of your own childhood. As your life becomes more gratifying, as it becomes filled with love, you will find that your longtime, gnawing resentments toward your father will recede. You won't need to be angry any longer because your life will feel fulfilled.
Don't waste time blaming yourself for what you have or have not done with your children to this point. It is understandable that, to the extent you have not built a closer relationship with your child, you will feel more alienated and, perhaps, helpless now. The good news is that it is not too late.
Your responsibility as a parent is to nurture your child, to help him reach his fullest potential. Your child also presents you with an opportunity to grow. Seize that opening.
Excerpted with permission from The Gift of Fatherhood: How Men's Lives are Transformed by Their Children, Fireside, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Aaron Hass, PhD
The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.