Each of your children is unique and special. You had your first baby and had the incredible privilege of relating to and learning about that one for a few years. Then a second one came along, and that child was totally different in hundreds of ways. Maybe you had some established expectations and routines as a dad, and this child blew those out of the water. The second child, though still fascinating and incredible, brought some new challenges your way.
In some ways, you probably thought, What’s going on here?
Then maybe you added a third child—and maybe a fourth, fifth, and so on—and each new child added to your sense of wonder as a dad, as well as the complexity of your role.
None of these are probably new thoughts to you. But there’s a related idea that most dads don’t see coming, and it’s this: Each of your kids will also have a unique perspective on your fathering and your family in general. You might assume they all perceive what happens at home in very similar ways, but that isn’t reality in many cases.
Maybe it’s easier to notice with adult siblings. Different kids grow up and have very different feelings about their childhood, even though they lived in the same home, with the same parents. Maybe one child grows up, stays close to Mom and Dad, and thinks they’re amazing. Another moves far away and wants little to do with his parents. Maybe you’ve seen some of that with you and your siblings.
In his book, Adorning the Dark, musician and author Andrew Peterson describes a counseling session where he was in tears as he talked about a difficult time in his childhood. He said to the counselor,
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me…. My brother and sisters don’t seem to carry this same pain, and we were all there at the same time, in the same house.”
The counselor’s wise response:
“If I were to interview four siblings about their childhoods, they would each describe a completely different family.”
Does that surprise you? Can you imagine one or more of your kids looking back on their childhood and feeling pain for some reason? Maybe one child thinks her brother was treated as a “favorite,” even though that was never your intention and it doesn’t make sense to you that she feels that way.
There’s probably no way to completely avoid these kinds of situations as fathers. It’s all we can do to keep giving our children our very best love and encouragement—and asking for forgiveness often. But we would all be wise to keep some key thoughts in mind:
Embrace the messiness of life.
As we often say, there are no perfect children and no perfect fathers. And there are no guarantees our kids will turn into competent, well-adjusted adults. We’re all self-centered to some degree, and every relationship is going to have complications and difficulties to work through. That multiplies when you put 4-5 people (or more) under the same roof.
That doesn’t mean we should lower our expectations for our kids, nor that we should give up doing our best as dads. But it’s easier to give our kids some grace when we admit that we’re all in similar situations. (And we can give ourselves some grace as well.) Also, the difficulties of life create the possibility for even greater victories when we overcome challenges together or grow in strength and perseverance because of how we’ve been tested as people and as a family.
Understand the depth of your child’s uniqueness.
Having a strong and in-depth knowledge of your children helps to minimize surprises that may come your way—especially the hard ones. But your kids truly are unique in many ways. They will perceive events and interactions differently from how others do. They will be different in the things that inspire them, things that are meaningful to them, decisions they make, goals they set, values that are most important, and so on.
As a dad, the things your kids do won’t always make sense to you. Sometimes they’ll make you unbelievably proud, and occasionally they’ll cause you great heartache. Sometimes they’ll be easy to love, and then other times not so much. Still, every child needs a dad he or she can count on, and since you’re in that position, you’re called to love them and be there for them to the best of your ability, even through difficulties.
Be ready for the “Reflection” years.
For many, this will be a “think 10-15 years ahead” exercise—and it’s an important one. “Reflection” is the term Dr. Canfield uses for the stage of fathering when the kids are young adults. Your child has moved on to college and/or a career. She’s establishing her own independence and evaluating how she was raised, what good things she wants to continue and what she wants to do differently.
Maybe a Psych professor prompted her to think about the good and bad in her childhood, or maybe she’s simply old enough to see that you weren’t Super Dad after all; you have some flaws and shortcomings that have impacted her in various ways. (And remember: one child’s conclusions may be much different from those of her siblings.)
As a dad, you want to be open to talking through all these issues without taking offense. Be willing to admit ways you fell short and humbly ask for your child’s forgiveness. Help your child reconcile her feelings about her childhood with the goal of helping her move forward in life without any hindrances from the past, at least where you’re concerned. Forge a new relationship that’s more like friendship than parenthood and continue to be a positive force in her life into the future.
Dad, no matter where you are in the fathering journey, start getting used to these ideas. Work on open communication with your kids now so any difficult conversations later won’t be quite so uncomfortable. And of course, keep investing wholeheartedly in your kids as you discover how each one is uniquely gifted and find ways to prepare them for life beyond your home.
When have you been struck by your kids’ unique differences? How have you adjusted for them as a father? Join the discussion on this and other fathering topics at our Facebook page.
Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
- How would you characterize your childhood? How would your siblings’ responses be different from yours?
- Think about what makes each of your kids unique. How are they different from each other? Talk through this with your kids’ mom.
- Since each child is different, it’s appropriate to parent them differently in some ways, and that isn’t favoritism. How can you help each of your kids understand this?
- How often do you ask for forgiveness from a child? If you rarely do, start a conversation with your child about ways you may have been insensitive or hurtful toward him or her. (And ask for forgiveness.)
- Start (or recommit to) a habit of regular one-on-one time with each of your kids. Find ways to continue it on some level even when they’re out of the house.