Your Fathering Journey in 6 Stages

by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.

Once a father, always a father.

That simple truth reveals that fathering is a process that lasts from the birth or adoption of your first child until the day you die. And really, we could say it begins when you start preparing for fatherhood. Your life will never be the same, and that’s a good thing. You’ll always be a dad; that’s the commitment you’ve signed on for, and it’s important to understand that.

What follows is what we call the Fathering Life Course. It’s a view of fatherhood in six stages, based on the age of your oldest child.

Why should this be relevant to you? Because, first, you need to understand that fatherhood isn’t just a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s a journey that will likely involve some tests along the way, and it will require commitment, endurance, and mental toughness.

Second, this will probably help you see that what you’re experiencing in your stage of fatherhood is probably common to many dads. You’re not alone. Millions of men have endured this stage, and they and their kids have come out fine.  

Also, there is value in stepping back and looking at life from a bigger-picture perspective. You can reflect on and learn from where you’ve been and prepare for what is ahead. Don’t underestimate this. Much of your success as a father will depend on your ability to anticipate changes in your children, and then adjust your fathering to match. In other words, be aware of what’s over the next horizon, as well as what’s still miles ahead. If you’re thinking about and planning for the next stages ahead, you’re much less likely to be caught off guard.

So, here are the six stages. I’ll touch on each one briefly here, but there are links to much more on each one.

1. Attachment (expecting to around 2 years)

You’re adjusting to your new roles and responsibilities and beginning to grasp the awesome privilege and responsibility of being a dad. It’s a major life change, and you’re probably only beginning to grasp what that means. The fascination with your new baby is balanced by coming to grips with your own dad’s role and influence in your life, and defining how you want to be like him and different from him.

Of course, the main goal of this stage is attachment, or bonding with your baby. That can be a challenge, but jump in, learn how to care for your baby, and find ways to make it fun. Find ways to play with your infant—something that often comes naturally. It’s good for him, and it helps you get to know each other more and more each day. Learn to work as a team with the baby’s mom, and find support in other dads around you.

Maybe most of all, learn patience. Some things you have enjoyed may need to be put on hold, but it’s worth it.

2. Idealism (preschoolers)

You’re settling into the role. Your child’s needs are still largely physical, and there are plenty of milestones as she learns and accomplishes new things—walking and talking and potty training and learning and relating. Things can be crazy busy, but being a dad is rewarding and fun. You can play games and do things together. You’re trying to establish habits and routines as a dad based on ideals—becoming the kind of committed, involved dad you want to be.

Preschoolers also bring challenges like defiance and disobedience, requiring correction and discipline, so it’s vital to have a plan and consistently follow through. They will get into everything they can, so safety should be a big concern. They will eventually start asking thousands of questions and wanting you to play all the time. That’s good! Enjoy it while it lasts, but also keep gentleness as a main goal as you deal with the daily challenges of having a little one around who still has a lot to learn.

3. Understanding (grade schoolers)

This stage is characterized by exploration. Your child is taking bigger steps out into the world on his own, and he needs you to monitor those steps and stay involved. School is a big part of life, and maybe sports and hobbies and other interests, and they provide many more opportunities to be involved as a dad. Studies have shown that a father’s involvement is a key factor in a child’s success in education, so find ways to plug in, whether it’s helping with homework or a project, attending conferences, or actually volunteering in the classroom.

With all that’s going on, it’s important to get a good handle on navigating work-family tensions—which begin in earlier stages but are often the most challenging with school-age kids. Work and family are both very important, but remember: at work you can be replaced in a few weeks and life will go on. That isn’t true with your kids.

Be a dad of peace. Enjoy these years and fill them with memories, because you know what’s coming …

4. Enlightenment (teenagers)

This stage often comes with the lowest levels of satisfaction for dads. Your role may feel like it’s diminished because your teenager is increasingly occupied with other things and people. She is figuring out her place in the world and expressing her independence, and that can include some conflicts. You’re becoming enlightened to the fact that your baby is growing up and your time is limited with her. You may also be dealing with your own mid-life issues.

It’s a changing relationship, but it can still be a good one—with some adjustments. Although there are challenges, remember that you’re shaping the future relationship with your soon-to-be adult child. Think ten years into the future, and ask, Is this issue we’re arguing about now important enough to jeopardize our relationship then? In many cases it won’t be, and this is one example of why you need to be self-controlled. You can no longer control your child, and the best course of action is to work on controlling your own words and actions. Find a workable way of relating to each other and remember that these years will pass, and it can be better.

5. Reflection (young adults)

Your child has graduated and taken steps into the “adult world,” which may include leaving home for college, a job and/or marriage. You begin to reflect on your life as a father and how you have influenced your child as he navigates his own path, and some ways in which you may have failed him. Be sensitive to your child’s need to process the good and bad from his childhood, but don’t be too hard on yourself. As you’re probably very aware by now, there are no perfect fathers.

Your role will be much different now, but there is still a lot of room for your influence and expressions of kindness. Keep taking initiative to maintain a strong relationship, which is becoming more of a friendship now. Support him in ways that help to establish his independence. Help him with car maintenance, taxes, and other aspects of “adulting.” Track and encourage his pursuits.

6. Generativity (grandkids!)

Fatherhood has become grand. As a grandfather, you’re still encouraging your adult child—and giving her respect and support as a parent is a big part of your role. Then there are the grandkids, who bring a whole new kind of fulfillment. It really is a magical bond between a child and a grandparent, so savor every moment. There are some advantages to this kind of parenting—a lot of joy and fun, with a lot less responsibility.

And still, your role can be vitally important. You have great potential to influence your grandkids through the way you show love, teach skills, model character, share wisdom, tell stories, transmit values, connect the generations, and leave a strong legacy. Committed grandparents are great examples of faithfulness.

Dad, I hope this summary is evidence for you that your role as a father is and will continue to be one of the most significant you will ever have. Your influence can shape future generations.

Where are you in the life course? What aspects of the various stages do you identify with most? Connect with us and with other dads at our Facebook page.

Action Points for Dads Throughout the Life Course

  • Dads of infants: Start a new habit or take over a parenting routine that will make life easier for your baby’s mom.
  • Dads of preschoolers: Make reading with your child a daily activity. Do what you can to make it fun!
  • Dads of school-age kids: Slip a note in your child’s backpack to encourage her in the school subject that’s most challenging.
  • Dads of teenagers: Let your child choose an activity to do together: a father-daughter date, bicycling, working on the car, golf or disc golf, etc. Be flexible and do it on her or her schedule.
  • Dads of young adults: Engage your child in a discussion about something important to her. Set your mind to listening carefully and respecting her point of view, even if it goes against your approach.
  • Grandfathers: Especially as more grandkids are added to the clan, make a point to spend one-on-one time with each of grandchild.

Want to know more about your fathering habits? Check out our free online Profile and Master Class, which will help you assess your strengths and weaknesses and form a positive action plan. Get started here.

Watch the replay of the Fathering Breakthrough Event

Join Dr. Ken Canfield and a handful of friends and partners as we give an update about our efforts to inspire and equip fathers all over the world.

There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.

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