by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
A young child’s first reference points in the world, what he uses as he begins to map out his entire universe, are his parents. And as a father, your children need you to be a dependable, predictable reference point in their lives. Children should know what to expect—where to find you. If you are consistent, your kids will gain confidence and security.
To keep your children from losing their way in a large and frightening world, it is crucial that you be consistent as a compass in five areas of fathering:
We all have our mood swings, but how far do we let the emotional pendulum swing in each direction?
Limiting mood swings does not mean keeping all emotions under wraps. Nor does it mean limiting yourself to peaceful or positive emotions. In fact, our kids benefit from seeing that we do get angry, but we handle it responsibly by not losing control of our words or actions.
Do your children know what to expect from you emotionally? Can your daughter approach you at any time, or does she have to “feel you out” first, to see what kind of mood you’re in? Does your son know what to expect the next time he accidentally breaks your favorite tool?
Inconsistent fathers leave their children on edge, wondering, How will Dad react when he walks in the door after work? If you are struggling from a “Jekyll & Hyde Syndrome” emotionally, you’re not alone. Understand that it probably didn’t start with you. Your dad may not have modeled how to reliably express emotion. Still, it’s up to you to learn to control your wide range of emotions.
Your Presence in the Family
For too many dads, home is where they eat, sleep, and do their best to keep the noise level down. Day-to-day parenting is left to their wives. These dads believe their presence or absence has little impact on the family.
How wrong they are. Our children are very familiar with our moods, our habits, even our level of commitment to them. It doesn’t matter if we’re tinkering in the garage, watching TV in the living room, or calling home from overseas. Our presence is felt deeply.
Every day there are decisions to make, crises to handle, wounded egos to soothe, and dads ought to stay in touch in each area. Obviously, you can’t care for a skinned knee when you’re on an assembly line or in a board meeting, but you can still connect with your children’s mom or caretaker every day about each child—even if it means calling home from a business trip to ask “How’s Joey doing?” Your children need to know that you know. They care that you care.
A divorced dad is even more challenged in this area. Occasional visits and regular calls are often tough and unfulfilling. Without a consistent effort to maintain the father-child relationship, divorce can breed insecurity in children and their non-custodial parent. As a divorced dad, one of your first priorities is to be consistent with your scheduled visits and child-support payments. After that, the extra calls, notes, and remembering what’s important to your child can give you a rock-solid “presence” in his or her life.
That’s good advice for all dads. We need to be there for the routine—building habit patterns, traditions, memories. But also the not-so-routine—the annual recitals, big games, special classes, romances, break-ups, fears, hopes and dreams.
Keeping Your Promises
There’s a world of difference between making a promise and keeping a promise. Politicians love to make promises. They pledge, vow, and guarantee. But then Congress gets gridlocked, special interest groups get their attention, their promises get broken, and “we the people” are disappointed. That’s how our kids feel when we make promises and don’t follow through. Each promise just sets them up for disappointment.
Realize that even though promises aren’t contractual or written in stone, your children view them differently. Any casual statements or suggestions about the future (“Let’s play racquetball one day this week,” or, “Maybe we’ll have time for McDonald’s afterwards”) sound like promises to your kids. In any given week, you may make many such statements—too many to remember them all. Apparently, you promised Mark you’d shoot baskets. You promised Erica you’d be there for her game. So, an important part of keeping promises is being careful not to make impulsive statements that could be taken as promises, but which you really aren’t that likely to fulfill.
But once you make a promise, keeping it must be a high priority. If you routinely make well-intentioned promises to your kids, but then “something important comes up” and you have to cancel, they will get the clear message that they aren’t that important. And over time they’ll learn that your promises aren’t even worth paying attention to. That isn’t where you want to be as a father.
Your Morality and Ethics
We try to teach our kids right from wrong and hope the important values and principles are sinking in. But we do serious damage to that whole process when our actions completely contradict what we teach. Few things do more damage to children than fathers who spout moral absolutes but live out a double standard.
Harry takes a privilege away from his daughter because of dishonesty. Then, later, when someone calls for him on the home line, he has her tell the caller he’s not there. Or there’s the dad who regularly challenges and checks in with his teenage son about being pure sexually and treating young women with respect and dignity, and then one day the son finds an adult website still open on his dad’s tablet. Such inconsistent behaviors can lead our disillusioned kids to trash our entire system of beliefs as faulty or fraudulent.
Even if we’re not cheating on taxes or having an adulterous affair, our children are still watching our every move to see if we “walk the talk.” The message we live is the message they get from us about what we believe.
Your children benefit from consistency in their father’s schedule and daily habits. At any time of day, they take comfort in knowing where you are and what you’re doing.
This might mean you have an advantage if your work routine is always the same; that’s something your kids can count on. But even if you travel a lot or your itinerary is never the same two days in a row, you can still make a point of checking in regularly and being home for dinner as often as possible. In those situations, dinner or other regular routines become important appointments for you to keep and a part of your daily habit that your family can look forward to. And it may not happen at the same time every day, but they know it’s a priority for you to be there.
This kind of regularity and reliability is not to be confused with dull or stuck-in-a-rut fathering. Those family dinners or weekend family times can be routinely scheduled, but they need not be boring or repetitious. You can be fun and spontaneous as long as your family knows you’ll make a habit of it. It’s important that your lifestyle, however complex, provides your kids with a point of reference, a fixed compass point as they explore their ever-changing world.
Is this asking too much of today’s fathers? Clearly, it’s unrealistic to expect every dad to be on a rigid time schedule for his kids. Our increasingly complicated lifestyles make that nearly impossible; many of us don’t know what will happen at work tomorrow, let alone what time we’ll be home.
Would that excuse you from being consistent in this key aspect of fathering? No, your kids need to have a sense of where you are and that you can be reached if they need you. Just as you let co-workers track your comings and goings, you can do at least as much for your children—and this includes keeping them in the loop when you’re on a business trip.
Dad, don’t be discouraged if you see yourself in one or more of the negative examples above. Try to set or continue patterns so that your kids know what to expect from you in as many areas of your life as possible. With a consistent dad for a compass, your children will venture out into uncharted waters with confidence.
For more on consistency and other key areas of fathering, see Ken’s book The Heart of a Father.