by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
Recently, someone reminded me that it’s been 30 years since the publication of my book, The 7 Secrets of Effective Fathers. 30 years! A lot has happened with that book since 1992, including dozens of weekend 7 Secrets events in cities all over North America. Between the seminars I taught and workshops by other trainers who led dads through the 7 Secrets, we estimate that more than 165,000 dads received hands-on training in this material.
Sure, much has changed, but the research that went into that book is timeless. (For those interested, here’s more on the research and how these “secrets” were identified.)
Then, more recently someone asked me,
“How has fatherhood changed in each of those 7 areas in the past 30 years?”
It’s a good question, and in case you aren’t familiar with these 7 facets of fathering—or if you’re just interested in some fathering trends over the past generation—here’s a brief summary on each one and some thoughts how it has changed.
Research and social science literature continues to mention commitment as a solid characteristic of strong families, and a father’s commitment to his children parallels that. In recent decades, we have seen a trend toward more committed fathering in general.
Although there are exceptions and still many unfathered kids, committed fathering is expected by many in today’s culture; it’s an accepted part of many more work environments, and is strongly encouraged in some cases. Still, each one of us must fight a daily battle with competing priorities. Our dedication to our children must be wholehearted—a deep, driving resolve to be the fathers our children need.
We need to be more vigilant about our children and their world. There are two words to keep in mind here:
Pursuit: We need to always be curious to know what each of our kids is involved in, who they are spending time with, and how they are progressing in education and other areas of life. We need to be actively vigilant while being careful not to be overbearing.
Understanding: The velocity of change in our world is dramatic, and it often means our children are facing issues of greater complexity at younger ages. It’s our role to come alongside them, seek to understand, and give grace as they navigate life now and into the future.
Kids need their dads to be dependable. It should show up in our moods, our promises, our habits, our schedule, and especially our relationships. That doesn’t mean there are no surprises, but the surprises are good ones and not the earth-shattering kind. For an involved dad, consistency may not seem like a big challenge, but any child who didn’t have a dependable father will tell you it’s huge. The larger idea here is that we’re building trust with each of our kids, which is a huge element in successful transitions—both now and much later in life.
Maybe the biggest change in this area is the growing difficulty of having a predictable day-to-day due to changing work arrangements. That makes it even more important to be reliable in our character and our relationships.
4. Protecting & Providing
These traditional aspects of a dad’s role are still very important. Protection in today’s world means guarding and shielding our children from the many forces that seem to constantly assault their innocence. We can’t completely shelter them, but we can help prepare them for the messages they will hear, the images they will see, peers they will encounter, and any other influences that are not in their best interest.
Providing will have some unique characteristics and challenges for each dad, depending on career choices, volatility in the economy, and family situation. Dads who aren’t the main breadwinners in a home still “provide” in the sense that they help manage the family’s finances responsibly and plan for their children’s future needs. Another important part of providing is equipping our children to provide for themselves and move toward becoming self-sufficient.
The research is clear here: If we have healthy marriages and good parental discussion about the children, then our satisfaction as husbands and as fathers will be much greater. As we all know, the traditional family unit—comprising a dad, mom, and their biological kids—is becoming less common, and will likely not be the majority of family situations in just 5-6 years. Families are only getting more complex, and while those families can be healthy and very positive for the children, the complexities also bring more challenges.
Our children need to see what a good marriage looks like—or at least see their dad and mom respecting each other and cooperating for the kids’ benefit. That isn’t always easy with increasingly busy lifestyles and changing ideas about the value of marriage. But setting that example for our children is still important and worth our best effort.
Although the fatherly lecture has long been a stereotype for dads, communication with our kids must be a two-way street. In most cases, our children have heard plenty about what we think; now it’s time to create new habits of encouraging them to speak much more freely as they are processing life. Being a good listener is a great way to feed our awareness of our kids, although it’s a growing challenge with our endless access to information and so many other interests and priorities competing for our time.
Active listening means, first, being present: spending lots of time with our kids and setting aside distractions so we’re really with them. We initiate conversations (not interrogations), demonstrate respect for their opinions even when they’re different from ours, and devote our full attention to hearing them—which includes observing non-verbal gestures and expressions. And over time, as our children see that we are really listening, they’ll be much more likely to open up and share about new or deeper thoughts and feelings.
In this digital age, our children are exposed to a wide variety of messages and worldviews, often before they are ready to handle them in a positive way. As fathers, we should be firmly grounded in our own beliefs and convictions and be confident in the basis or reference point for those beliefs. From there, how can we engage our children on issues related to faith, morality and ethics, right and wrong?
In many ways, this involves the six other secrets in one way or another. For example: having a strong commitment to equip our children in this area, being aware of what they are seeing and hearing, stepping in to protect them where necessary, keeping communication going and listening to their concerns, setting a consistent example through the decisions we make and the things we pursue, and so on. If there’s one other objective to hold in mind, it’s teaching our kids to be discerning.
Dad, which of these 7 is the most challenging for you? Connect with other dads and gain from their insights on our Facebook page.
Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How would you characterize your commitment to your children? Is it wholehearted? Are there many times when being a dad seems like too much hassle?
- Come up with 10 questions to ask each of your children, one-on-one—questions about their interests, their friends, their favorites, “What would you do if …?” and so on.
- Ask each of your kids if there’s a promise you have made but haven’t kept.
- What’s the best tip you’ve heard for teaching your kids about money? Share it with another dad—and ask for his best tip.
- Do something to intentionally invest in improving your relationship with your kids’ mother. (If you don’t have any great ideas, ask her.)
- When your children are talking to you, be conscious about facing them squarely and giving them your full attention.