Fathering young school-age kids is really an amazing time. Your child is out to see what life has to offer, to understand the world and become a citizen of that world.
The most obvious change in his routine is going to school, but that’s only part of a larger process. Your child is an eager learner. Whether it’s what type of sneaker is cool, why Susie is so popular, a move on the basketball court, or how to make change for a dollar, he wants to know.
When our kids are in this mode of exploration, we fathers don’t need to know everything or be able to teach them everything, we simply need to be active participants and facilitate the process.
We do this by hiring teachers (with tax money or tuition), but we also go to parent-teacher conferences and review curricula. Facilitation means enrolling the kids in 4-H, gymnastics, soccer, or violin lessons-wherever their path of exploration appropriately takes them. Facilitation means governing the television and the computer-those “grand educators” of today’s world. Facilitation means listening to our children’s questions and answering patiently. It means giving them skills to evaluate what they have learned.
Having an exploring child brings changes and challenges that every dad must be ready to address. These four suggestions will help you be the father your school-age child needs:
When your kids go out exploring, you accompany them. That means it’s you taking your daughter to dance practice, then going to watch your boy’s T-ball game. The week before school starts, you visit Roosevelt Elementary and introduce your daughter to Mrs. Jones, her teacher. You ask around the neighborhood: “How good of a school is this? Are your kids doing well there?”
Once you establish a link, it’s important to monitor your child’s progress. That means more than asking about her grades in math, spelling, or science at the first parent-teacher conference. How is she interacting with her teacher and her classmates? Is she receiving the essential things she needs? If not, what adjustments need to be made?
Monitoring also means receiving feedback. Teachers, coaches and music or arts instructors can provide a valuable perspective. The reports will be official-Laura’s second quarter report card-and unofficial-“Let me tell you what I saw David do yesterday. It astounded me.” Even if the feedback is negative (which some will be), avoid getting defensive. Nothing is helped by denying that your child may need assistance in some area.
As committed fathers, we are on a quest to observe, but not control, many facets of our children’s lives. Being aware will help us meet their needs, guide them through adjustments, and protect them from potential dangers.
One common pitfall during this stage is burning your kids out with all the things you introduce them to. Be careful; busy adults often have busy children. It’s good for children to experience a wide variety of activities and come under the tutelage of other adult mentors, but they don’t have to do everything. For now, it’s best to encourage your kids in several select areas and let them enjoy childhood while it lasts.
BE AWARE OF YOUR EMOTIONS
When your child goes out into the world, so does your name and your reputation. Every time your child steps up to bat, walks out on stage, or sits down to take an exam, he carries part of you with him, and you may feel your own self-worth on the line. You’re contending with two very real emotions: pride and embarrassment. We can’t stop feeling pride and embarrassment, but we can control how we handle them.
Pride in our kids should be expressed at every legitimate moment: “Sarah, you played that piece beautifully. Johann Sebastian Bach would be proud.” But pride becomes destructive when it causes us to put pressure on our children or blow their performances way out of proportion. Haven’t we all witnessed a dad making a scene at the Little League field when a call goes against his son or when the coach takes his daughter out of the game? Some dads even publicly berate their own kids for failing to do their best.
That fear of embarrassment in dads is understandable since their own egos are so caught up in their children’s performances. But maybe that’s the problem: we fathers generally take too much credit when our children succeed and too much blame when they fail.
Anticipate feeling embarrassment since trial and error are part of every explorative process, but don’t express outward shame or anger. Above all else that you do as a father, let unconditional love govern how you relate to your kids.
Healthy pride in your child helps you realize that there’s a lot more at stake than your own ego. When your fathering is on display, it’s an opportunity. You can either strengthen your relationship with your child, or you can make her wish she’d never tried out for drama club or volleyball. Be her biggest fan simply because she is your kid-win, lose, or draw-and she’ll be just as proud to be your child as you are to be her father.
BE INVOLVED IN YOUR CHILD’S EDUCATION
Your child’s formal education takes place largely when you’re not there. Nevertheless, you have not only the right to know what’s going on in your child’s classroom, you have the responsibility.
A child’s reading and study habits are greatly influenced by his parents’ attitudes about learning. If you’re not interested in your child’s school work, chances are he won’t be either, and that can have far-reaching implications.
Help your child maintain a positive outlook on school. Discuss expectations, focusing on what he’ll learn and achieve, not just A’s and B’s. Check in with your child once a week about his school work, so he knows you’re thinking about it. Ask some pointed questions: “What are you covering in History?” “Mind if I read your English paper?”
It’s also vital that you develop a good relationship with your child’s teacher. Support her by enforcing deadlines and homework instructions. If her creativity on a particular project paid off with your child, send her a note to say “thanks.” Remember, your child’s teacher is your partner, not your adversary.
Beyond the classroom, we dads must view educating our children as a way of life. Whether it’s in the car, on the playing field, at the supermarket, around the dinner table or in the garage, we’re sharing life skills, passing on who we are and what we believe.
As our children’s most important educators, we should give some concentrated thought to the task, starting with knowing their learning styles. In the book Talkers, Watchers & Doers, Cheri Fuller describes three different types of learning strengths that children demonstrate.
For example, a “doer and toucher” child won’t sit still very long during a lecture. Likewise, auditory “talkers and listeners” learn better from tapes than from books. “Watchers” are drawn to interesting colors, shapes and diagrams. We shouldn’t let our kids’ learning styles rule our lives, but we can be more sensitive to those unique traits as we lead our kids in the classroom of life.
Perhaps the best way to influence your child’s learning is through encouragement. Notice progress and reward your child when she achieves a goal. Send souvenirs of her accomplishments to a grandparent or other relative. Compliment her intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness.
School-age children bring a lot of complexity to fathering, and it’s often accompanied by tension. There is a daily struggle to keep up with your kids’ homework, attend their activities, and work out schedules so your family can spend at least some time together.
You may feel tension between your career and your family. There may be tension in the changing relationship with your wife as, through the years of changing diapers, caring for sick children and wiping up spills, you haven’t had much time for just the two of you. There will be tension when a child does something completely unexpected, inappropriate and/or embarrassing.
All this tension brings potential for conflict, both in fathers and in their families, and each dad needs a sense of peace. The peaceful father can discern when to exercise discipline and when to laugh at a harmless mistake. He sees conflicts as teachable moments for his children. He recognizes the importance of rekindling the romance and the close connection in his marriage. The peaceful father can place his job in proper perspective and is able to balance the demands of his workplace and his home.
Most of all, the peaceful father lives confidently within the various tensions, knowing that relationships can be strengthened by challenges and crises. The bond with his children will only grow stronger through the shared trials.
As a child explores the world-discovering new skills, ideas and relationships-there are many uncertainties. He needs a guide who’s been there before, who can answer questions and point out danger signs. He needs to know he’s being tracked, supported, and grounded in what he knows to be true and reliable. As a peaceful father, you can provide that security. You can be your explorer’s base camp, his solid anchor, his safe harbor.