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Tips and tricks from a young dad ;)

The 5 Characteristics of a Good Dad: Being Better Than the Best Father You Can Be

on May 30, 2012

Father and Son

With the passing of my father a couple years back and the birth of my son after that, I have frequently tried to define those traits which made my father the great man he was to me and many.  I was lucky, I guess, as many of my contemporaries in an age where divorce, broken homes and abuse are prevalent in the headlines were not as fortunate to have a steadfast male role model.  Some of the lessons my dad tried to impart to me I understood.  Some I wouldn’t understand until I became a dad myself.  Only time will tell how my own son will look back on my skills or lack of skills as a father, and his opinion is really the only one that matters; but here are the 5 characteristics I’ve isolated, which seem to be strengthening the bonds between us.  They’re undoubtedly applicable to fathers, mothers, sons and daughters everywhere.  I’ve encapsulated them into phrases for easy remembering.

1. Work is work.  Family is family. Only family really matters.

So much of the male psyche is tied to work.  Perhaps it is a throwback to our hunting and gathering days where the results, either success or failure, directly related to whether your family starved or prospered.  I’ve seen good men laid off from their jobs in this economy and become depressed, listless lumps of low self-confidence.  As men, our work and our resulting profit are hardwired traits in our psyche.  When work is tough, it’s easy to take those stresses home.  Men also tend to be brooders.  We’ll stew on something searching for a solution, but we won’t necessarily discuss the problem with our spouse or anyone else.  Instead it manifests itself in grumpiness, moodiness or solemnity.  Our children, even just a few months old, can pick up our moods and they’re great mimickers, because this is how they learn.  My father was a little bit of a brooder at times.  I was a huge brooder, but I knew I didn’t want to pass this on to my son.

The solution is to learn to shutoff the thinking about that crappy job the minute you arrive at your doorstep.  Focus on your family.  It takes practice if the pressures and stresses of work are rather overwhelming, but remind yourself that work will still be there tomorrow.  You’ll have a much healthier and happier and longer life if you learn to let it go and really spend time with your son or daughter.  I find that once I sit down and play trucks or wrestle with my son, I don’t even think about work anymore.  After just a few minutes, I’m being goofy and we’re laughing together.  That’s what matters.

2. Be present and engaged.

Don’t sit on the sidelines and let your child play alone.  While their ability to self-entertain themselves is a critical part of their development, if you are there you might as well seize the opportunity to be your child’s partner in play.  Remember showing up is a big part of good parenting but engaging and playing with your child is equally as important.  Some of my fondest memories of my father were learning how to play chess, checkers and backgammon with him.  I never doubted his presence.  Studies show that actively engaging with your child in play or work teaches critical social interaction skills and raises self-confidence.  Just recently I let my son “sort of” assist as I installed his toddler rail to convert his crib to a bed.  That’s work not play, but if you slowdown and let them hand you things and pretend to drive the screws, it can become an engaged experience.  For weeks afterward my son re-enacted driving the screws into the crib with his plastic screwdriver.  To get the best results let your child take the lead.  He/She may be slowing you down and not actually helping the process, but if your son or daughter believes they are helping and you can slow down to encourage them thinking that, they’ll know they’re an important part of your family team.  Just know that simply being present and playing with your child will provide him/her with a lasting confidence in family unity they won’t be able to obtain through being alone or through play with other children.

3. It’s not the destination it’s the journey.

I actually learned this lesson from my wife.  I have always been the type of person who goes somewhere to do something and doesn’t stop on the way.  As a father of a curious child, I’ve had to learn to only accept that destination as someplace I may or may not get to, as we may find something more interesting along the way.  It’s important to let your child lead sometimes.  On a recent trip to Sequoia National Park, beneath the shadow of the 2,700 year old General Sherman tree, my son decided that picking up bark and tiny rocks and putting them in the holes of the fence rails was the most wonderful thing in the world.  My wife and I made a game of it by timing how long he was fascinated by the endeavor.  For 23 minutes we sat there and let him play his game.  I wanted to continue our tour, but I realized: “Why?  My family is here.  I am here.  We’re content.”  It isn’t the destination that’s exciting; it’s the journey you’re taking to get there.  Don’t be afraid of giving up the thing or place you wanted to go to replace it with something new.  Let go of that and focus on the moments you’re traveling together.

4. Hug, kiss and tell them you love ‘em.

Men often have difficulty expressing their softer, nurturing sides, but learning to do so can dramatically strengthen the bond between you and your family.  Sometimes there is a cultural barrier to displays and affirmations of affection but you should strive to work beyond these.  As a dad, you should strive to let those around you know that you’re not just the stern dictator and rule enforcer of the family.  Let them know you have a softer side and a special place for them in your heart.  Children and wives need to know you hold them in high regards and, if you really think about it, you are letting them know you are there to protect them, the most primal of roles for a man, when you let them know you value them.  I always knew that I could call my father at anytime and tell him that I needed him and he would move heaven and earth to get me, help me or find me.  I think I knew that because we weren’t afraid of maneuvering beyond our German and Irish “tough love” complexes to utter an occasional “love ya” or give a hug when we parted for long periods of time that we were part of each other’s lives and we were “in it together.”  In my house, my wife and I never leave without giving each other a kiss and we kiss when we first meet up again after work.  I tell my son “Daddy loves you” and I give him a kiss on his forehead every night before he goes to sleep, and every morning I give him a hug and wave to him from the car as I leave.  It’s important on many levels.  Not only does he know he’s valued, but he sees that I value his mother when I hug or kiss her.  He’ll treat his mother, his girlfriend and his wife the same as he sees you treat his mother.  Take note you father’s with daughters, your daughters will date and marry men who treat them like you treated their mother.  If you’re fighting or bitter to one another all the time, that’s what they’ll do in their lives as well.  So hug them, kiss them and tell ‘em you love them.

Just recently I was rewarded for my teaching through example that it was okay to express affection.  My 21 month old son, my wife and I were in our bed at 5:30 in the morning, as he’s transitioning from co-sleeping to all night in his crib.  Sometime in the early morning he wakes up and wanders into the middle of our bed.  This particular morning I was awakened by a tiny hand patting me on the back and my son stringing together his first meaningful two word phrase, instead of solitary words.  He has a lexicon of about 40 words right now, but this first phrase accompanied by a pat on the back was a simple: “My Daddy.”  My heart melted.

5. Make “me” time and “our” time.

If you want to be the best dad you can be, you have to be the best person you can be.  Holding down a job and managing a family can leave very little time for you to work on your endeavors, hobbies and health.  Make the time for you and for your spouse.  You’re no good to anyone if you pop a vein from work stress or you cope by adopting an unhealthy lifestyle.  I tried going to the gym after work, but with my son going to sleep at 7:30 I was only able to have about ½ hour to spend with him.  I had to shift my workout time, with my wife’s encouragement, to after dinner and my son’s bedtime– 7:30 to 9:00.  I’m able to maintain my sense of health and I get a little “me” time too.  We have a rule in my house, as well.  We all sit down and have dinner together at our dining room table.  That’s “our” time as a family.  Look for opportunities to work, play, eat and do things together.  Always find time to play together.

My wife also knows I love football.  On Sundays I am often sitting on my couch with my son explaining the role of a quarterback or something similar about the sport.  He may or may not understand, but that’s not important at his young age.  I still remember watching the “Thrilla in Manila” with my dad.  I was 7.  I remember little of the now historic fight as I watched it that day, but I’ll never forget the feeling of sharing the experience of watching it with him.  Just as you take time to engage alone or share in your hobbies or endeavors, make sure your spouse gets a little time to herself as well.   Her being free to get a manicure, shop a little bit or even simply read a magazine let’s her recharge and feel like herself– the wonderful person you fell in love with.  I’m looking forward to starting a tradition with my son of Saturday or Sunday matinee movies.  My wife will have several hours to do whatever she likes, and I get to share a movie and some popcorn with my little buddy.  He’ll grow up knowing that his dad liked spending time with him.  Our whole family will benefit from the freedom of “me” time in “our” time.

I’m sure I’ll have many more than 5 characteristics isolated as I have more revelations and lessons of fatherhood ahead of me, but I think if I can manage some level of mastery of these 5, I will be well on my way to being the kind of father I was blessed with.  I’ve always assured myself that if I can just be as good a dad to my child as I had, I would do alright.  I know my dad would want me to be even better than he was but I can’t wrap my mind around how that’s possible.  In the end, my son will be the judge of how good or bad I was, but I want him to know I did my best to put family first, to know that I was always there, to know that we were in it together, and to know that I valued him and that I enjoyed spending time with him.  So far, I think it is working as my son runs to greet me exclaiming “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” when I come home from work.  The only other man he greets with that type of excitement is the pizza delivery man, but that’s not because of the man, that’s because of the pizza – “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”  For now, I’m his rock star, so I’ll savor the adoration of my youngest fan and try to be the best example I can be.  Good luck to you as you do the same.

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