Your children love to hear your voice, to see you come in the door, to be next to you at the table, to play with you as long as you can possibly play! One father I know told me that his 15 month old climbed up on his and his wife’s bed at 6 a.m. one morning, crawled over, peered in his face, and gently put her finger up his nostril! Your children want contact with you–all of you!
Dads get a raw deal, however. The pressure to earn a living often has a desperate thread woven through it: there’s a sense that if you don’t provide, dire things will happen to your family! We live in a society in which the lack of any safety net for families translates to a feeling of “life and death” for Dads around work issues. And when work must be pursued in a worrisome way, exhaustion is not far behind. Long hours, worry, heavy expectations, an ever more uncertain working environment, and the threat of poverty all make it harder to enjoy our children. It’s also hard to think independently about ourselves as Dads and as men: what do we want to do with our lives, how do we really want to live, what’s important to us?
Listening to each other, hearing other Dads talk about parenting and about what’s important to them is a first step to climbing out of living under obligation. Just hearing how life is for other Dads can help bring a sense of perspective to our lives: the oppression of parents jams us all in similar ways. Getting a chance to say what your highest hopes are for your relationship with your children and your partner can help lift a trudging spirit. And seeing how good other Dads are, how valiantly we struggle to be our best and to care deeply, lets us go easier on ourselves.
One point that’s important to clarify is that fathers are absolutely primary parents. Children want, need, and love their Daddies. Some children grow up without the benefit of a Dad, and they manage well, but you need to know that, whatever your parenting circumstance, your child wants you close!
Children often look like they favor their Moms, and that when the chips are down, it’s Mom they want to stroke their forehead or kiss their hurt or listen to the tale of their hard day. But this is usually just the result of cultural circumstance: Mom is nearby more often when the chips are down, because in our culture, Dad usually spends more time at work. (In families in which the Dad stays home, the children gravitate to him in hard times, and it’s the Mom who has to work to keep from living on the emotional outskirts of the family.) You don’t have to remain on the emotional outskirts of your children’s lives!
What helps children grow close are simple things any Dad can do, if he has been clued in to the secret!
* Your children love play, especially physical play. So you can get down on the floor and pillow fight, or wrestle, or be a horsy, or play hide and seek. If you are careful to always lose (maybe not by much–children love a good contest), to let them have the final victory, and if you are careful not to overwhelm them with your strength in play, they will laugh and find all kinds of ways to “get” you. The more they laugh, the closer they’ll feel to you. Joy and love are built in playtimes like these.
* Your children want you to listen to their feelings, not to correct them. When children have played all-out, they feel safe enough to bring up heavy emotions. This is a golden opportunity. They are falling apart over some seemingly small issue: you said that play is over now, or you said they have to put their seat belt on, or they don’t like what’s being served for dinner. What you need to remember, in order to build closeness with your child, is that she wants you to listen while she cries! If you can love her, touch her gently, say little, and stand by whatever limit you have set (”I’m sorry, but you do have to put on your seatbelt”), she will get the bad feelings out, and will notice that you simply loved her even while she was feeling desperate or mad or sad. It’s this kind of listening that helps children feel like you are on their side forever. This kind of listening puts love in right at the most crucial time–when your child feels undone and vulnerable. All you have to do is to be kind and patient. Your child will show you more closeness and trust when she has finished her cry or her tantrum.
* Your children want your life to be good. You working too hard and having no one to talk with about what matters to you keeps you remote from your child. Children often say they want the latest expensive toy or clothing, or feel like when the TV breaks, it has to be fixed right away. But saying no to some material things (and hearing your child’s full cry about how life can’t be lived without the latest “thing”) so that you can be in your family’s life more is a huge gift to your child and yourself. Go ahead and set limits that you think make sense, limits that allow your life to be good, too.
You belong in the center of your family, close and warmly loved! And we need to work together to see to it that fathers win more time, more security of mind, and more connection to other parents*, so that we can relax and enjoy the people closest to us.