by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
A worldwide pandemic might be the latest example, but there are almost always situations that bring widespread uncertainties about life and what lies ahead. As fathers, we can’t predict the future, but times of testing should motivate us to step up as leaders for our children and families, and be prepared as best we can.
Life as a father means adapting to change. On the negative side, there are potential hardships and difficulties along the way. A child could get into trouble with the law. A family member could be in a tragic accident or contract a life-threatening disease. There could be a divorce or a significant change in the marriage relationship. A daughter could get pregnant in her teens. A child could encounter serious struggles in school. We could lose our jobs or there could be other financial difficulties.
And there is uncertainty even in the “normal” adjustments of life as a dad. What challenges will come when a child enters the “terrible twos” or the teen years? What if a child wants to marry someone you don’t approve of? How does a dad adjust to remarriage and stepchildren? How do you help a child with a learning disability? What if a child’s friends are a negative influence? Becoming a father itself means stepping into a new and ever-changing way of life.
Some of these events give us time to anticipate the changes and prepare ourselves. Other events are unpredictable: sometimes they’re completely out of the blue, and sometimes they only seem sudden because we’re too caught up in other things to step back and see what’s about to happen.
There’s no need to panic, nor can we just hunker down and wait out the storm. We need to act now. Here are some fatherly traits we can work on to help us be ready for the uncertainties in our path:
THE CALMNESS FACTOR
“Be calm.” It’s more than a trite, easier-said-than-done recommendation for dealing with difficulties and crises. In research at the National Center for Fathering, calmness emerged as a strength among the dads who scored best on our surveys.
Calmness describes an inner confidence that will be invaluable when difficulties do arise. Are you comfortable in your roles as a man, or do some responsibilities make you feel insecure? Insecurity leaves you vulnerable to life’s difficulties, but if you feel good about yourself as a husband and father, you’re better prepared and more likely to manage difficult times constructively.
We fathers should approach our task expecting a few skirmishes. We’ll be called into action in the middle of the night; we’ll need to deal with emotions—in ourselves and in others—that may seem strange and uncomfortable; we’ll have to step in and handle discipline problems with wisdom and love; we’ll be dealing with other kids in the neighborhood who need our attention and love, too.
A dad with a healthy attitude toward difficulties isn’t caught off guard. He’s comfortable with his responsibilities and ready to step forward and take action when necessary. He is able to size up a situation, direct family members to help in constructive ways, then kneel by his child, brush the hair out of her eyes, and tell her, “It’s all right. Daddy’s here.”
We can’t always prevent crises, but by developing calmness, we can do a lot to bring about positive outcomes for our families. It all begins with an attitude that says, “It’s for occasions just like this that I was made a father and a man.”
The father who is prepared to deal with difficulties constructively also has good verbal interaction with his children. He can openly communicate with them, and they know they have an open channel to their dad at any time, concerning any subject. When tragedies or hardships occur, his family is ready to express their emotions in a healthy way, reassure each other, discuss possible solutions, and work through them together.
But that father is rare. Much more common is the dad who models unhealthy communication habits: he responds to harsh words by being even more negative so he can “win”; he puts down his family members when heated emotions arise, often bringing up past mistakes; perhaps most commonly, he avoids important discussions, or when things don’t go his way, he shuts himself off or leaves the room.
We must strive to be like that first dad, whose actions help to make his children feel secure. We need to become adept at giving and receiving forgiveness as well as giving regular verbal blessings and affirmations. We can accept our children even when their behavior is unacceptable. We can listen, be slow to anger, and avoid overreactions.
Difficult times will come, and when they do, our families will draw from the positive example we set. They’ll respond by working together to solve the problem without anger and retaliation.
A great way to “practice” communicating as a family is to hold regular meetings where anyone can bring up a problem or concern. Gather everyone together—with no screens allowed—and share what’s happening in your lives. Take time to discuss each issue, gain the collective insights of your family members, and work toward a resolution.
Finally, communicate with your parenting “teammates.” Your children’s mother is always a valuable asset with her sensitivity and insights. And don’t forget the other dads you know. During a difficult time, it can be very helpful to talk to a close friend who has been through something similar.
A HARD LOOK AT PRIORITIES
Difficulties test us and our relationships, and often serve as eye-openers about our priorities. We strive to get ahead in our careers; we pack our weekends; we putz around the yard or workshop for hours; and we never miss a tee time. Meanwhile, our marriages could suffer, our children may doubt their own value, and other key relationships become victims of our questionable priorities.
Why is it that, for so many of us, it takes a heart attack, a bout with cancer, finding out that a child is on drugs, or a family blow-up to convince us to change our lives and do what’s truly important? Are we just lazy? Or selfish? Each one of us must answer those questions for himself, but there are some characteristic ways in which we lose track of what’s most important to us.
First, it’s easy to get distracted in the midst of our digital culture. Every day we bury ourselves in our phones and streaming services and web searches. There are advertisers and other influencers using any method possible to get our attention. It’s very difficult for a distracted father to bond with his child. The child can sense when his feelings have been disregarded.
Second, often our jobs keep us from being highly involved with our children. Work is important; providing for our families is part of our role as fathers. But too many men excuse themselves from fathering because they must do what is expected of them on the job. In many cases, however, it isn’t so much a case of must as it is want. It’s often easier for men to seek their identity in the workplace rather than the home, since work often provides more immediate rewards.
Dad, don’t wait until you’re forced to re-examine what’s truly important in life. Pause right now and consider your ambitions and priorities. Talk with your children’s mother. Look at how your daily life reflects your priorities. You don’t have to quit your job tomorrow, but you can make a conscious decision to invest yourself more in things that matter most—relationships.
Then, once you’ve made a wise decision, communicate that commitment to your children. Verbalize your intentions, and then show by your actions that, in your heart, your children stand head and shoulders above almost everything else.
Misplaced priorities can amplify family difficulties—or create crises where none existed before. Having your priorities in order won’t prevent those difficulties, but your role will be simpler when they do arise. If your children know that you’re 100% there for them, they won’t be as likely to rebel or withdraw during a crisis, and will probably be willing to work toward a solution.
Dad, you’re going to be tested! Your family is going to occasionally put you on some emotional roller-coasters. Your children may say things that are designed to hurt you. That’s okay. Stay calm and positive; don’t go ballistic when you talk to your kids; demonstrate self-control and be the reliable leader that your family needs. You can teach them some important lessons and set a long-lasting example for how to handle difficulties.