4 Things I Learned as a Single Father

by Matt Haviland

I was a single father for almost a decade. They were challenging years, but looking back I realize that some of my hardest moments taught me the greatest lessons. That doesn’t mean everything got easier as time went on, or that I achieved some level of greatness as a dad. Even now, my parenting is far from perfect. Still, being a single dad drew certain traits out of me and gave me perspectives that I may not have known if circumstances had been different.

I realize your story isn’t my story, but in many ways, I get it.

So here are the top four things I learned as a single father. They are not exclusive to single parenting, but they are more noticeable in my own life because I wasn’t in a two-parent situation—and there’s a good chance they will be helpful for you.

Parenting for the Long Haul

Granted, this isn’t always obvious when we’re in the thick of single parenting. Sometimes we can barely see to the end of the day. Yes, the saying goes that hindsight is 20/20. Still, as we encounter the same scenario over and over, we gain insight into what works and what doesn’t.

My daughter is almost an adult now, and I was a single father for the first 9-plus years of her life. Even now, living in a blended family, I still carry much of the weight I did before I married. There are parenting time schedules, holidays, and other logistics to navigate with her mother.

As a single father, I would highly encourage you to keep in mind this acronym I learned from a good friend who leads a co-parenting organization: TEAMM: The End Adult Matters Most. Think about that as you make decisions today, and keep asking yourself, “How will this affect my children five, ten, or even twenty years from now?” Today’s circumstances may not seem fair; discouragement can be overwhelming if you allow it to be. But stay focused on the long term. When you do, even the smallest challenges today will strengthen you as a father for tomorrow.

The Value of Consistency

When I led a small group for single fathers, I often told the guys, “If there is inconsistency in the other home, that makes consistency in your own home that much more important.” Children thrive when there is stability, and it shows up in meal and bedtime routines, household rules, following through on both promises and disciplinary warnings, and yes, even dating as a single father.

Consistency brings a sense of peace and safety as well as setting the right example for when your kids become adults. You are bound to fall short. (After all, no one is perfectly consistent 100% of the time.) But stay alert and keep pressing forward. If you do, your children will be in a much better position than if you cave to the pressures and give them free reign.

A few simple, proactive tips you can begin with include: regular check-ins with a peer, mentor, or single father support group; being aware of your actions and emotions, and making healthy adjustments where necessary; and giving yourself grace through it all.

The Value of Words

In our small group, our “golden rule” was: Never slam the moms. Sure, we may have vented a lot, but when it turned toxic or slanderous, I or someone else shut it down. And that’s an excellent rule to follow all the time—not just when speaking about your child’s mother, or perhaps her significant other, or anyone else for that matter. We learn it early as children, but so quickly forget as adults: “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

But do talk about the good. Find something of value when you talk about your kids’ mom. If she is still a part of their life, it may be something like, “I’ll tell you what, your mom has always been an excellent cook!” Or, “Your mom sure loves throwing you a fun birthday party.” If for whatever reason she isn’t around anymore (and I’m sorry if she is not), fill your child’s heart and mind with loving thoughts and memories. Say something like, “I remember one time when you were a baby, your mother________.” She is a major part of their identity, so use your words wisely for your children’s betterment.

One last tip in this area: make it a habit to speak life-giving words at all times, not just when your children are around. It’s good training; it will help put your heart in the right spot so that, when they are present, they will be lifted up by what you say, not torn down.

Teaching Our Kids the Value of Mentorship

I’m a strong believer in the value of mentoring. I think everyone should have a mentor and, when appropriate, mentor someone else too. What does that look like as a single parent? It means taking the initiative to find other people who can be positive role models in your kids’ lives.

For your daughter, find an adult female you trust who can invest in her life. If Mom is still actively involved, this is not meant to replace her. But if she isn’t actively present, a female mentor helps fill a void that’s hard to replace as a dad. I want to be sensitive here. Anytime a child loses a parent, it’s devastating. I don’t know your exact situation, so please take this as a general suggestion that can be very beneficial.

For your son, a mentor can bring a non-biased role to help complement your parenting—whether it’s a family friend, a grandfather, a teacher, coach, youth pastor, etc. You are still the parent and the primary role model, but adding a male mentor to your son’s life not only helps him in valuable ways, but it can be a vital support to you when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

George Herbert said, “One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.” You may not feel that influential all the time, but think again. You have a tremendous opportunity to impact your son or daughter for the better. When it comes to navigating the single father life, stay at it—and keep that end adult in mind.

Read more from Matt at fathers.com here.

Matt Haviland is the director of a men’s center located in Grand Rapids, MI. He is married to his amazing wife, Christy, and is the father of a wonderful teenage daughter. He and Christy are currently in the adoption process as well. Matt has been working with fathers since 2008 and understands just how valuable dads are to their families and communities. A native of Grand Rapids, he enjoys family time, reading, playing golf, and almost all outdoor recreation.

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