Playing with your toddler in a “sensitive, supportive and challenging way” will help him form closer, more trusting relationships with others later in his childhood and teen years. This comes from a 16-year study by researchers at the University of Regensburg in Germany. While observing 44 families, researchers gave high scores to fathers who talked to their toddlers in an age-appropriate way, stimulated and encouraged their children, made appealing suggestions for play, and refrained from criticism.

The quality of dads’ play was found to be comparable to the strength of the mother-infant bond in predicting children’s ability to form enduring relationships later in life. And when the children reached age 16, fathers’ play proved even more powerfully predictive than the mother-child bond. Dads’ play makes “a pivotal and unique contribution” to kids’ growth, the study reported.

boy running to dad (asian)That description—”sensitive, supportive and challenging”—goes hand-in-hand with a key virtue that we encourage fathers of toddlers to develop: gentleness. And gentleness as a father begins with maintaining composure through the highs and lows that come with having young children. As the Proverb says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

Being a “gentledad” starts with being proactive instead of reactive. A dad who’s reactive is prone to fly off the handle when one of his children messes up, defies him, or makes one more request of his time. He’s likely to act in response to the urgent issues pressing on him—which aren’t always the most important matters.

But a dad who’s proactive chooses how to act based on his priorities and the principles he believes in. He maintains an awareness that his child is more important than most other demands, and he responds to his child’s requests with calmness. He’s approachable and accepting. During play or other activities, he’s slow to anger and seldom overreacts, even when correcting or disciplining his children. If he learns to be “sensitive, supportive and challenging” with his children during their early years, it will continue to serve him well when his children grow into teenagers and young adults.

ACTION POINTS

  • Read a book with your child this weekend. Ask him lots of questions as you go.
  • Make a concerted effort to give your child focused attention: slow down, put distractions aside, and focus your eyes and ears on him or her.
  • Talk with your children’s mother about your discipline habits and how you can help each other maintain your cool during tense times.
  • Revisit the topic of safety with your children in a way that’s appropriate for their age. You might talk about household dangers, encounters with strangers, proper and improper touches, etc.

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