Before I had kids, I remember chatting with a friend about the responsibilities of being a dad. After listening to me drone on for a bit, he said something I’ll never forget: Each phase of life is a different kind of awesome. Being single? Awesome. Getting married? Awesome. Fatherhood? Just a different kind of awesome.
Being a dad is the greatest, hardest, most exhilarating and most exhausting adventure in the world. Yes, kids don’t sleep much when they’re young, and they sleep a ton when they’re teenagers. They’re expensive and take all your money. They make idiotic choices.
But having kids, raising them well, loving them—it’s the most profound joy you can possibly imagine.
Being a dad is also a massive responsibility. We’ve all heard the stats about kids from fatherless homes. From suicide to behavior disorders to homelessness to dropping out of school, children without fathers are much more vulnerable than kids who come from a supportive home.1 And there are millions more children whose fathers are physically present in the home but absent in spirit.
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You can do things differently. And I’m so thankful that you’re reading this article, deciding to love your children well. Let’s dive right in.
Find Mentors to Follow
Becoming a good dad is not something you automatically know how to do. It’s something you learn and practice. Most of us learn by watching our parents, but the problem is that many of us had a bad example of a father (or no example at all). But hear me on this: Your past is a context, not an excuse. If you didn’t have a great dad, you get to choose to paint a new picture for your family.
Find a man you respect as a dad and spend time with him. It could be your dad, someone in your church, a dad of one of your best friends, or an uncle. It might be awkward at first, but men: We need to get over the lie that you can do life alone. We need each other. Find someone you can call when you don’t know how to take the next step. Build relationships you can lean on when things get hard—and they will get hard.
Love Your Kids’ Mom (Whether She’s Your Wife or Not)
The number one thing you can do for your kids is love your wife. This goes way beyond just telling her you love her. You have to show love and treat her with dignity, respect and kindness. Children are tuned into their parents’ relationship, so if it’s tense and chaotic, the child’s behavior will reflect that. If the parents’ relationship is warm, safe and connected, children are more likely to try hard things, learn resiliency from failure, and believe that they can succeed.
Here’s one way this plays out in my home: When I get home after work, I hug and kiss my kids and then immediately begin a family tradition called “grown-up talk time.” The kids have to leave the room so my wife and I can connect. They sometimes roll their eyes and whine when I send them out. I’m cool with that. Fifteen years from now, I want them to know that when dad got home from work every day, their mom was his number one priority.
Now, if you and your children’s mom are separated, resist the urge to talk bad about her. I don’t care how bad she hurt you or what you think of her character—never talk bad about your kids’ mom. As their parents, you two are the most important model of relationship for your children. They’re watching how you treat each other.
Take Care of Your Own Mental, Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Health
As men, it takes courage to admit when we need help. You might not have even acknowledged it to yourself, so let me help you out: If you find yourself angry, disappointed or exhausted all the time, you’re not well. If your wife and kids avoid you when you’re home, you’re not well. If you’re overweight and eating a ton of junk food, you’re not well. If you keep reaching for yet another drink, guess what? You’re not well.
Men: Enough is enough. For the sake of our families, our children, our cities and our country, we must take responsibility for our own well-being. Now.
Get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Take care of your body by being active and nourishing it with healthy food. Get some friends. Go to church. Or at the very least, get connected to groups with other adults.
Your kids are watching. Be a steward of your health for the sake of your family. More importantly, be a steward of your health for you. Maybe no one has ever told you, but you’re worth it.
Don’t Hide or Disappear
Dads have this uncanny ability to hide in a crowded room—at the kitchen table, behind their phone, or in front of the TV. They go to their workshop or their man cave and isolate. Of course, you need your alone time to pursue what you love to do, but don’t let those spaces and those hobbies take priority over being present with your kids.
There’s one moment in my relationship with my son, Hank, that is seared into my memory. I’m from Houston, and I’m a big (pre-cheating incident) Astros fan. I would come home from work exhausted, and my son would be waiting for me with two gloves and a ball. Instead of playing catch, I would always suggest that we watch the professionals play rather than fumble through the game ourselves. One day, when Hank was 8 years old, he came in and asked me to play with him. “Not now, buddy,” I responded absentmindedly, staring at the screen. He paused for a moment and asked, “Daddy, do you love the Astros more than you love me?”
His words were like a dagger. I turned off the TV, took his hands in mine, looked him in the eye, and said, “I love you more than anything in the world, buddy. Let’s go play.” That day was a turning point in my relationship with my kids and with screens, and I resolved to stop hiding behind sports.
Spend Time With Your Kids
When given the choice between a video game console and you, your kids will choose you. Kids would rather wrestle with you than watch the latest UFC fights. They might not know how to express it, and there might be some barriers to overcome in your relationship to establish a sense of safety, but your kids crave your attention. Your kids need your eye contact, your approval and your connection.
Meet your kids where they are—ask if you can join in their hobbies with them. Be silly. Buy your kids Nerf guns and ambush them when you get home from work. Teach them how to fish. Plan your wife a surprise breakfast in bed and have your kids cook the pancakes with you. Give them opportunities to serve and participate in the mission of your family and home.
Know the Details of Your Kids’ Lives
I told my wife that I wanted to get more engaged in my kids’ lives this year. I wanted to be more than just a guy who sees them for a few minutes before I leave for work every day and who plays with them for a few hours in the evening when I get home.
My wife asked me some hard questions: “Who is Josephine’s allergist? What time does Hank’s school start? What is Hank’s math teacher’s name? When are baseball sign-ups?”
I got the point.
Work hard to know your kids. Who are their teachers? What are they studying? Learn their rhythms. Get off work early on occasion to pick them up from school. Showing interest is one of simplest and greatest ways to show how much you love them.
Be Physically and Verbally Affectionate
Be affectionate with your kids, even if it’s uncomfortable. When your kids are little, hug and cuddle often. Touch their hands and face and feet. As they get older, you’ll have to balance respecting their autonomy and still being physically affectionate. But even when your sons are as tall as you are and smell and have hairy legs, hug them. Be the kind of dad whose daughters feel safe coming to for a big bear hug.
Also, use your words. Tell your children you love them. Tell them you’re proud of them. Leave them sticky notes on the bathroom mirror. Write a birthday card with some substance. Even if it feels awkward or it doesn’t seem to make a difference, do it. They will remember. I promise.
Model a Healthy Relationship With Money
Few things add more stress and anger to a home than money. As a dad, you’re responsible for looking down the road to provide for your children. Of course, you might be the parent who stays home while your wife goes out to earn the big bucks. But no matter how much you do or don’t earn, take on the responsibility of meeting your kids’ needs and setting them up for success.
At the same time, keep in mind that your kids want you—not your stuff. Don’t use money as an excuse to stay at the office and away from home. They’d rather have one less screen or gadget and more time with you on a hike. Or at the park. Or spraying them with the water hose. Or anything else.
Eat Together as a Family
I get it. The last thing you want to do after a long day at work is to prepare meals and talk about algebra and dragons and school drama with your kids.
But eating together is a super important way to bond with your children. Meals are a safe—even sacred—way to create rhythms of connection. Children who regularly share meals with their parents demonstrate higher academic achievement and fewer high-risk behaviors, like substance abuse, sexual activity and violence.2 And kids who enjoy family meals at least three times a week have better nutrition and fewer eating disorders.3
I know you’re busy. We all are. But you’ve got to plan ahead and make connecting over meals a priority.
Involve Your Kids in Creating Rules and Discipline
If you love your children, you’ll discipline them. You’ll set boundaries and enforce those boundaries as the authority figure. But instead of imposing discipline through your power and “Because I said so,” involve your kids in the creation of discipline. Decide as a family what values are important to you and what the consequences will be for not living up to those values.
Additionally, spend time catching your kids doing good. We spend so much energy correcting disruptive or disrespectful behavior that we often miss when they’re doing good things. When they’re respectful, when they take their plate to the sink without being asked, or when they serve someone without whining—call out the good things.
Read to Your Kids (and Let Them Read to You)
Reading to your kids is an incredible bonding experience. It’s nurturing on a mental, emotional, intellectual and even physical level. Make a regular practice of reading before bed or on the weekends. As your kids get older, have them read to you. The key here is to actually stay awake (dads have this super-power ability to fall asleep within seconds of laying down—it happens to me too, brother).
Part of being a good dad is allowing your kids to take appropriate risks. We have to choose to let go of our anxiety and let our kids learn from experience as they gain autonomy in the world.
My wife is super wise about this. The other day, my son was climbing a tree and started to get too high for my comfort level. I stood up to go pull him out of the tree and said to my wife, “He’s going to fall and get hurt!” She replied, “Once,” and pulled me back down.
Let them fall from the limbs that might get their attention—just don’t let them fall from the limbs that will kill them. If Hank were on the roof, of course I would have climbed up there to make sure he got down safely. But when we rob children of natural consequences, we steal from them their ability to navigate an increasingly messy and complex world.
Get More Parenting Advice on The Dr. John Delony Show
If you want to keep growing as a parent, I’d love for you to check out The Dr. John Delony Show, where I do my best to help people figure out how to be better humans—dads included. Men, we have the ability to make a massive impact on our children’s lives, for good or bad. I’m encouraged that you want to grow, and I’d be honored to keep walking alongside you on this journey.
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