Knowing Your Child: Awareness Can Revitalize Your Fathering

by Dr. Ken Canfield

How important is it for us to be aware fathers? Sadly, many fathers may not realize it until they have missed something in a child’s life.

Robert grew up in a town where there was a special tradition on the high school football team. Before the seniors played their final home game, each boy’s father would get to take the microphone and announce his son’s name, number and position over the public address system. It was a tradition, and those boys looked forward to that moment from the time they were tossing the football in the elementary playground. They were thinking: “Some day my dad is going to get to go out there and say my name, my number and position.”

Robert wasn’t very big or extremely quick, so he was on the second string, but he loved the game of football and enjoyed the chance to play. Before his final home game, Robert stood proudly out on the field as the microphone was passed down the row. Finally, it was his father’s turn.

“Well,” his dad said a little hesitantly, “my son’s name is Robby Harmon, and his number is … twenty-two … and he plays … well … I think he plays … halfback?” He laughed nervously, and a tense hush fell over the people in the stands.

But out on the field, number twenty-two—a defensive safety—felt like someone had just stuck a knife in his stomach. It was obvious that his father had little idea about who he was and the dreams and desires that were important to him. Some forty years later, Robert can’t tell this story without a lump swelling in his throat and a tear coming to his eye.

How important is it for us to stay up to date on the events, thoughts, and emotions in our children’s lives? This kind of information may seem trivial, but we can be sure that our awareness will come back and impact our kids.

Fatherhood is an education in many ways. You gather your family around the table and have everyone share an experience or thought they’ve had that day. You watch your child playing and observe his imagination and creative abilities. You visit your child’s school room, meet her teacher and learn about her daily schedule. You take your child to lunch and ask him to bring along his new friend. Or maybe you don’t see your child every day, or even every week, but you commit to regular phone calls and dinner dates so you can keep up with her ever-changing world.

2 Kinds of Awareness

Awareness of our children comes in two different forms—general and specific. For the sake of comparison, consider the knowledge we have about automobiles. General awareness is like basic auto mechanics—knowing how engines and chassis fit together and operate, and what’s likely to happen as the mileage increases. Specific awareness would be knowing that the brakes on your year’s make and model need replacing more often, you have to jiggle the latch to get the hood open, and it needs to warm up at least eight minutes on a cold day.

General awareness tells us the basics: the needs of children, the ways they will likely change as they grow and mature, and their physical and intellectual capacities at particular ages and levels of development. We’d know that, for instance, a 9-year-old’s social development involves clubs and group activities, that his enthusiasm often runs faster than his abilities, and he often wants to be like his peers.

We find out that kind of information from books, seminars, and basic psychology texts, but also from the people around us: our children’s mother, our parents, teachers, and other dads who have “been there, done that.”

General awareness provides an overview—a road map—of a child’s development. But a general understanding must ultimately be tested specifically, on our own children. Knowing what’s typical for a child of a certain age is one thing; knowing how each child is and is not typical is another matter. We need to take into account the unique and changing level of maturity, emotional makeup, intellectual capacity, and individual needs of each of our children.

Carl has two young daughters. Kate is four, and has always been very outgoing and verbally oriented. As she grew, Kate learned to solve problems using her verbal skills—trying to talk Grandma into giving her what she wanted and telling Daddy “white lies” when she needed to. Brenda, Carl’s younger daughter, only allows a select few people to hold her. She’s very action-oriented: at two-and-a-half, she can nearly outrun her sister; when she wants something, her natural inclination is to just go get it.

Carl has two very distinctive children, and he has realized that he will need to handle them differently as they continue to grow. Both of them need to feel loved and secure, but maybe Kate will want to be told more that she is loved, while Brenda may just want to be held. When Kate has done something wrong, a stern look may put her in tears, while Carl may need to discipline Brenda in some more physical way.

If you have a seven-year-old daughter, you should probably not take her to a symphony orchestra concerto. A general awareness of children would make that clear. On the other hand, what if she is a budding cellist? She might just be fascinated enough to sit through the performance if her father takes a walk with her during intermissions. Only an aware father can make such judgment calls.

A father with specific awareness is prepared to make those kinds of everyday decisions and adjustments. He knows his child’s strengths and weaknesses, and what motivates, embarrasses, encourages, and hurts each child.

The Benefits

Like Carl, when you’re aware of each child—what he or she thinks and feels—you no longer have to simply make guesses or draw shaky conclusions based on what may have worked for so-and-so’s children. You are able to evaluate any advice or experience in light of your child’s unique needs at her particular stage of development.

The unaware father might say, “Things are tense with my teenager, and I have no idea what to do. I’m willing to try anything at this point.” He’s shooting in the dark, hoping he’ll stumble upon some response that can make things better, even if it’s only for a short time. Awareness allows you to work from a position of strength, where you know what stifles your children and what makes each of them thrive. With that knowledge, you lovingly act to meet their needs.

You’ll also need to be aware of your children’s potential weaknesses. As a father who has a general awareness, you know, for instance, that thirteen-year-old boys and girls experience strong peer pressure. Furthermore, in terms of specific awareness, you know that your own thirteen-year-old son often says that he’d “give anything” to have that $3,000 mountain bike. With that awareness, you might consider talking to your son about the dangers of materialism or financially sponsoring a child from a poverty-stricken country.

A specific awareness of your children will allow you to both anticipate problem areas as well as diagnose core issues when your child does go astray. Is your child curious about—or actually involved with—drugs? Maybe he’s looking for an escape. Is your daughter getting dangerously involved with her boyfriend? There’s a good chance she’s not getting enough physical and verbal affection from the other man in her life—you. Is your son experimenting with alcohol? Maybe the parties he’s going to help to boost his low self-esteem.

There are land mines waiting to explode when our children take a few steps to the left or right, and when we are unaware of what is happening in their lives and the particular personality traits that make them susceptible to certain dangers, we’re only asking for disaster.

But when we are aware of who our children are, what they are experiencing, and how they perceive the world, we begin to see solutions and not just problems. When we realize—even to a limited extent—that we can be the fathers that our children need, we stand straighter, and our shoulders relax. “I will be that father.”

The act of gaining awareness about our children communicates something in itself. It says, “You are important enough to me that I’m going to read books, spend time talking with you, involve myself in your activities, and work with your mother to learn as much about you as I can.” Your child’s teacher may ignore him unless he causes trouble; his friends may joke about him for any number of superficial reasons; but he finds confidence and security in knowing that you consider him important enough to take the time to learn more and more about him.


This article was adapted from Ken Canfield’s book The Heart of a Father.

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