Fathering Your Pre-Schooler: Learning & Growing

As a father of an energetic, challenging pre-schooler, it may seem like your child’s birth is ancient history now. But “birth” is also a metaphor for a thousand other events that occur throughout childhood. A few years ago, your child was born into the world, but now he is born into the world of speaking and toilet training and learning and relating.

Growth is rapid during these years. Your child seems to have boundless energy and can’t get enough running, racing, wrestling, playing games, swinging, sliding, and on and on. Be prepared, because your child will really test your stamina. He is active socially and needs lots of interaction with you, other adults and playmates his age. He will start learning and singing songs, and asking all kinds of curious questions. His imagination is now running wild with stories, pretend games and even imaginary friends. He will keep you on the verge of wonder.

You’ve probably been waiting for the chance to relate to your child on more concrete terms. Now he can understand and use words rather than forcing you to interpret various sounds and gestures. You can say, “I love you” and be confident that your daughter knows what you mean. You can ask your son, “What do you want to do this afternoon?” and his answer will guide you toward something that will make him happy.

It’s a busy and important time for you and your child, and there are key tasks and challenges for dads of preschoolers, including establishing ideals, forming a healthy pattern of involvement in your child’s life, and demonstrating gentleness as a father.


As a father of young children, you’re establishing priorities, deepening your commitment to the fathering role, and choosing your ideals. It probably took a year or two for the new feeling of being a father to wear off. Now you have begun to grasp the many demands fathering puts on your time and energy, and you have a better idea what it’s going to take to be a good father. Now is the time to decide: “It will be a challenge, but I’m going to place fathering among the highest priorities in my life.” It’s a great time to come up with your own personal fathering policy.

What does fatherhood mean to you? You’ll feel expectations from the culture, colleagues at work, parents and in-laws. But more importantly, your children’s mother has expectations of your fathering, and you need to listen to her carefully. You can learn a lot about parenting from her, and the only way to deal with her expectations is to bring them out in the open, discuss them, and make decisions for the benefit of your children.

You need to be able to ask her, “What do you think my fathering role should look like?” Maybe you’re in charge of bath night, supervising Saturday chores, and tucking in duties. Talk about the amount of time spent with the kids, handling discipline, or childrearing values in general. Work out the details yourself, but remember to verbalize your commitment as you establish your fathering ideals.

If you verbalize your commitment as a father, that makes you accountable to follow through on those stated intentions. Many dads never say what they intend to do, so they can’t get in trouble for not doing it. What’s more, whenever they do contribute as a father, they act like they deserve some kind of award for making sacrifices above and beyond the call of duty. After all, anything looks great when you’ve committed yourself to nothing.

Moms have typically been the ones held responsible for the children, and too often we take them for granted. We dads sometimes come off as playmates only, caring for the kids when we feel like it or when we say we have time.

As responsible, courageous dads, we must proactively establish our ideals and then verbalize that commitment to our families.


You probably don’t need much help in this area. Involvement with your pre-schooler comes easily. He is eager to learn a variety of games, stunts, and sports, and dads are the perfect playmates.

Nothing can replace a father spending time with his children, and it’s usually the everyday moments together that are most meaningful for kids. Here are two examples of kids’ memories with their dads from the National Center’s Father of the Year essay contest:

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…. He likes to read me 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.”

These essays-and many others-share an emphasis on the commonplace. Swimming; ice cream; praying; doing the dishes; painting or coloring; going to the playground; rolling or tossing a ball back and forth; climbing trees; answering questions; building something together. Those are the best memory-making, relationship-building activities for you and your child at this stage.

A child is an incredible being! Don’t let yours grow up without you.


One day Mike was out in the back yard, cranking on his fourteen-year-old lawn mower. After so many years and so many repairs, the old beast just wouldn’t start, and Mike’s frustration mounted.

After cranking and cranking for several more minutes, Mike accidentally brushed his hand against the pull cord, which was hot enough to burn him. That was the last straw! In his frustration, he took a step and gave the mower a swift kick.

As he stood there stewing in emotion, he sensed another presence nearby. He turned around and there was his three-year-old son, who had been pushing his little plastic mower near the house. What do you think he did? Sure enough, the boy reared back and kicked that little mower, just like his dad.

Emotional expressions are among the most important qualities a father can model. Few men are comfortable showing emotions, but all children need to learn how to handle their emotions in a healthy way. And dad, your children-especially your sons-are going to learn largely by watching you.

The emotions you show every day determine whether your household will be a place of comfort and acceptance or one of uneasiness and foreboding. This is especially relevant when it comes to disciplining your children. Training children to be responsible people starts at birth and never really ends, though it changes drastically through the years. A nine-month-old will begin to challenge your authority, and a teenager may openly rebel against you from time to time. But during your child’s pre-school years, you establish your approach to discipline and carry it out on a daily basis.

There are many approaches to discipline, and each mother and father should consider them carefully and decide on one together. (At the National Center, we highly recommend Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay.) No matter what method you choose, the one factor that will make the most difference is your ability to be gentle with your child.

Parental discipline and anger, though often associated, belong in two separate realms. Relating to young children provides many opportunities for a man to test himself against his anger and train himself to remain patient, gentle and self-controlled. Gentle dads can still correct their children-and punish them, when necessary. It’s just that the punishment probably won’t be as loud, and it’s much more likely that the consequences will fit the crime.

The patience that carried you through the first two years of being a father is still a great virtue to practice and develop. In fact, patience is a big part of the gentleness that is required during these preschool years: patience for toilet training; patience for his seemingly boundless energy; patience for her endless curiosity; patience when you’re trying to teach manners; patience when it seems like you’re failing as a parent.

You exercise gentleness during temper tantrums; gentleness when he is trying to deal with new emotions; gentleness when she becomes selfish and possessive; gentleness as your youngster pushes against your boundaries; gentleness as he learns appropriate ways to use his developing vocabulary; gentleness as you praise good behavior; and gentleness when you exercise discipline.

There’s a peaceful feeling when a gentle dad walks into a room. A gentle dad has learned that a child responds to a dad’s yelling and intimidation because she has to, but she responds to a calm, gentle father because she wants to. Every child wants a dad who’s approachable and accepting, who listens to his child’s concerns and remains open to her ideas.

So be ready, dad. Realize that your family is going to occasionally put you on some emotional roller coasters. You’re going to be tested. Your child may even say things that are designed to hurt you personally. That’s okay; stay calm. Don’t split a gut or go ballistic when you talk to your kid. And don’t wait until the heat of the moment-decide now to react calmly at your next opportunity.

Demonstrate a life of self-control and character. Be a gentle father.


  • Set goals for your fathering that are measurable and realistic. Have someone hold you accountable for them.
  • Make reading together a regular activity with your child.
  • Set boundaries for your child: negative (limits and rules) and positive (guidelines and goals).
  • Go over safety precautions with your child:
    – Help her memorize her address and phone number.
    – Teach her how to handle encounters with strangers.
    – Teach her what to do in emergencies (including urgent medical situations).
    – Teach her how and when to call 9-1-1, how to make a long-distance call, and how to get operator assistance.
    – Walk through what she should do if there’s a fire, tornado, earthquake, loss of power, etc.
    – Be sure she knows what things in the house are off-limits: matches, medicines, power tools, etc.
  • Initiate regular, healthy physical interaction with your child.
  • Find a good book on discipline and read and discuss it with your child’s mother.

This article was adapted from Learning & Growing, the second in the 6-book Adventures in Fathering series by Ken Canfield.

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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