Making Involvement a Priority

by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.

How much is a dad’s involvement worth? Think about it in dollars and cents: what are you worth to your children?

It depends on whom you ask. One well-known father promised his son they would do something together on the boy’s birthday. They made plans in advance, and the son counted the days. Then, several weeks before the big day, the dad got an important speaking opportunity for that same day that would pay an honorarium of $1,000. Besides the money, this event had great potential to further his career. Still, he felt bad about breaking the date with his son, so he sat the boy down and tried to cut a deal. “Tell you what, Son,” he said, “I’ll go speak at this event, and since you’ll be missing out on our day together, I’ll give you the thousand dollars.”

The boy thought it over for a few seconds. “No, that’s okay,” he replied. “I’d rather have the time with you.”

Several years back a retired sports figure was sued by his two daughters for not being around. The girls were separated from their dad at an early age, and the dad gradually disappeared from their lives. When they reached their twenties, they claimed that they tried to contact him, but he rejected them. Maybe those young women just wanted a chunk of their dad’s money, or maybe they sincerely hoped to establish a meaningful relationship. Whatever their motives, they set the price for their dad’s absence at $16 million.

Slice it however you want: $16 million for twenty years or a thousand for a day. Our children place great value on our time and our presence—our involvement. Study after study confirms the benefits our children will see if we invest ourselves in their lives. Let’s be sure we don’t shortchange them.

Forms of Involvement

Researcher Michael Lamb divided a father’s involvement into three useful categories:

Engagement is where a father and his child are doing something together, where the purpose of the activity (on the father’s part, at least) is to be with his child. Dad enlists his teenage son to help change a tire;  he goes shopping for school clothes with his daughter; he suggests a walk down the street for frozen yogurt; he attends his children’s choir performances and basketball games.

Maybe you’re accomplishing some task together, or maybe you’re just out to have a good time and make sure your child does the same. The important thing is that you are building a stronger relationship and making memories that will last for years.

Accessibility is unstructured time—being in the vicinity of the child without necessarily doing an activity together. You can be attentive to your child and enjoy his or her presence even while you’re focused on something else. Accessibility also enhances the child’s sense of your availability even when you’re not together at all. It’s making sure your child has your work and your cell numbers and saying, “Call any time you need me.” And the child knows you mean it.

Responsibility covers the daily tasks of fathers caring for their children. We feed mouths, we drive them to lessons, we wipe noses, we tie shoes, we give out allowances, and yes, we change diapers. We are there to meet our children’s needs, whether those needs are rather trivial and everyday or they’re matters of health and survival.

All three forms of involvement are vital, and we must carry them out in ways that are both balanced and appropriate to the child and the circumstances. If you’re “accessible” while streaming Netfix on your tablet, but then snap at your son when he tries to talk to you, how accessible is that? If you’re fulfilling fatherly responsibilities by picking up Erica at soccer practice, but then talking on your phone the entire drive home, that isn’t the kind of involvement kids need. Some kids want to be engaged all the time; others are content to do their own thing next to you on the couch. Balance is the key.

A Kid’s Definition: T-I-M-E

Asked for a quick answer on how to improve as fathers, most dads would probably say, “Spend more time with my kids.” It’s the simple, instinctive way a dad shows his children that he loves them. To them, love means more when it’s spelled T-I-M-E. The quality of their relationship with their father can be measured by the amount of time he spends with them.

In our essay contests, children most often wrote about the simple, everyday activities—the T-I-M-E together with their dad:

Timmy: “My daddy loves me. He plays with me. He takes me to the park. He takes me for ice cream. He takes me swimming. Daddy helps me with my homework. He likes to listen to me read my reading books. He plays baseball with me. He takes me on walks with my dog. He tickles me a lot.”

Bethany: “He chases me. He tucks me in bed at night and prays with me. When we go to the beach I get on his back and he swims.”

Leigh: “One time, my daddy took me up in a big, big tree. He tied a big rope around his waist and tied the other end of the rope around my waist. We both climbed all the way to the top of the tree. He also taught me how to use hot, hot water so that all the germs will come off the dishes.”

These essays also give some needed perspective on the issue of quantity time vs. quality time. Isn’t one hour of meaningful conversation better than five hours of just “hanging out together”? What’s so disturbing about the “quality time” argument is that it’s most often used as a rationalization for fathers who aren’t spending much time with their children. Really, it’s a moot question. Quantity time is prerequisite to quality time. We will seldom experience meaningful time together unless we’ve first put in the hours. It takes quantity time to build trust, and trust is a necessity for real quality time.

Your children want to know they’re important enough for you to mark off blocks of time in your schedule and say, “It’s just you and me this afternoon,” even if you’ll only be hanging out together. Nothing can replace a father spending time with his children.

Motivation for the Task

In today’s world, making involvement in our children’s lives a priority will probably never come easily. There are a number of obstacles to overcome: many of us are lacking parenting skills, or we feel inadequate as fathers. We receive a mixed bag of support and discouragement from our wives, friends, and other parent-child situations around us. There’s the ever-present tension between responsibilities at work and staying connected at home. Many of us may be processing the way we were fathered and figuring out our own way of being involved with our kids.

One strategy for persevering is to take a long-range perspective on our roles as fathers. Some dads regularly do a mental exercise where they project ten, twenty, forty years into the future, when they’re facing their own mortality, and imagine how they’ll feel about the life they lived. Some even think about what others would say at their funeral: “Brad was a dedicated worker.” “Kevin achieved his lifelong goal of rising to the top of the company.” “More than anything else, Michael loved to spend time with his family.”

What legacy will you leave behind? How will your children remember you? Those can be large, sobering thoughts, but they can also serve as useful reminders of what’s truly important in our lives and what we can do today to demonstrate it.

Do we really believe that we as fathers make an irreplaceable contribution to the lives of our children? Have we grasped how much our children need us in unique and dynamic ways throughout their entire lives?

Financial advisors will tell you that saving money is not a miraculous growing process, like planting a small twig and then coming back in twenty years to find a massive, towering structure. You don’t put $100 into a bank account and expect to have a fortune in twenty years. Instead, saving becomes a way of life: you invest a little every month, and it grows accordingly—and surprisingly.

That’s why involved fathers are like wise investment bankers. They carefully consider their resources of time and energy—precious commodities in their chosen endeavor—and stand ready with their unconditional love and willingness to sacrifice. It’s hard work—a long haul, with few immediate rewards.

Listening attentively as your five-year-old tells the same story for the tenth time is a small deposit in his life. When your daughter is nervous about volleyball tryouts, taking her to the gym for an hour of setting and hitting is a small deposit. The fascinating thing is, our children mature at a much higher interest rate than any mutual fund, and you’ll be amazed at what they will accomplish when they are given the small, consistent deposits of our time and effort.


For more on involvement and other key areas of fathering, see Ken’s book The Heart of a Father.

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