by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
I’m a big believer in men looking backwards in order to do their best with their own children going forward. That usually means gaining insights about our fathers (or lack of a father) to give us needed perspective on our fathering.
There’s an exercise I have used with groups of dads that I encourage you to try. Recently, I met with eight leaders in a Midwestern city—a diverse group of men who are supporters of father-equipping efforts in the community. I wanted to leave them with some insights that would make a difference with them and their children, and this is what I suggested.
The exercise consists of writing a letter to your dad.
Now, maybe some reading this have complex or unresolved feelings toward their fathers and can’t imagine doing this. That’s OK. Really, the point is to write the letter. Giving it to him could be another big step in reconciling or repairing the relationship, but for now, writing it is a good start.
And I’m calling it a letter, but it could end up being a list or just a collection of scribblings. Thinking through these issues and capturing some insights will be beneficial no matter what approach you take.
So, what’s in the letter? I’d suggest three things:
What you’re thankful for in your dad.
Come up with at least two reasons why you appreciate him. Maybe this is about his positive virtues and traits, and writing about some of those should make it clear how blessed you were to have him as a dad. Though he wasn’t perfect, he brought some good things that were benefits in your life. Acknowledge that.
Some of you will truly have nothing positive to write about your father because he wasn’t there for you or maybe he was abusive in some way, and you can’t even start to consider that he had redeeming qualities. Maybe this is where you think of other men who invested in you or who were role models in your life. Or, maybe you can write about ways you grew as a person because of difficulties you had to overcome because of your dad. That’s valuable too.
Three ways you’re different from your dad.
Your father’s talents, tendencies, and priorities may be different from yours in significant ways. Maybe some of those differences have been sources of conflict through the years, or maybe they are qualities you have admired about him and that you wish you had inherited. More likely you’ll have a mixture of these and other reactions.
Getting them on paper or a screen in front of you can help you better understand more about yourself as a dad. Just make sure you’re making decisions based on your own convictions about what’s best, and not simply trying to avoid being like your dad because of hurt feelings.
What you wish you would have heard more from your dad or experienced more with him.
Here you might be tempted to slip into blaming your dad for what he didn’t or couldn’t give you. Instead, as you acknowledge that he had his flaws and challenges, focus more on what you can learn from that as a father today. You know what it was like to be your father’s son; what do you suppose it’s like for your kids to be your child? Try to meet their needs in ways that maybe your father didn’t for you, adapting your efforts to the uniquenesses of your situation and your individual children. Have the more difficult talks with your kids. Say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” more often. Be available for them anytime. Initiate outings together that you know they will enjoy.
Bonus suggestion for brave dads:
Now, take the letter you’ve written or the ideas you’ve captured and show it to someone—like your kids, if they’re old enough to understand it, their mother, and/or another close friend or relative who knows your family well. Get their perspective on what you’ve written.
Try it, dad. It may seem silly or pointless, but I have used similar exercises with men in a wide variety of ages, races and situations—successful businessmen, incarcerated dads, and many more. More often than not, several of the dads will get emotional and shed tears as they work through it. And more than that, I’ve found that bringing these things out in the open provides a helpful perspective and often a sense of freedom from issues the dads may have been wrestling with for years.
What did this exercise reveal to you? Get feedback and wisdom from other dads on our Facebook page.
Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
- Have you ever taken a hard look at your fathering heritage like this?
- If you took time to really ponder and write about the suggested topics, what did you learn? Did it reveal anything that you hadn’t considered or understood before?
- If your father is still alive and available to you, take one step—even a small one—toward building or maintaining a good relationship with him. It could be a phone call, an email or text, an activity together, etc.
- Have a lighthearted talk with your kids about some ways they are like you and not like you—foods you like, hobbies and interests, preferences, and so on.
- Ask another dad to go through this exercise, then get together, compare notes, and talk about any changes you may want to make in your fathering.