How does a man become a good father? In this last post on fatherhood, I want to answer this question with some practical pointers. But I want to begin by examining the motivation behind our desire to be good fathers.
When my two daughters were born, the predominant drive to be a good father was a negative one — I was determined not to be like my father. I didn’t want to repeat the same errors and inflict the same casualties. But that determination sent me forever scrambling to the next book or the next conversation about fathering.
My intentions were good, but so much of my soul did not know the feel of being fathered. I was trying to pass on what I had never experienced. Now that my daughters are grown, I know that God honored my intentions, but I wish that I had sought the experience of being fathered by God first (see the post “Experiencing God’s Fatherhood As A Son“). I would have been able to father out of a place of security and confidence, not anxiety or confusion.
Having said that, what does a good father look like? What does he say? What does he do? Here are my three pointers.
A Good Father Engages
A good father engages. He is not passive or distant from his children. In that engagement, a father non-verbally communicates to a child something so crucial: “I see you. You are important to me. You are so worth my time.” Here are several ways a father can engage:
- The first way is the simplest and most natural. He plays with his children. It could be hide-and-seek in the backyard or a board game after dinner. It could be romping together on the trampoline or swinging together on the swing set. The activity doesn’t matter nearly so much as the fun together. That playfulness can extend into the normal chores of life. When it came time to cut the grass, I used to first cut a maze in it for the kids. Use your own imagination here.
- Another way is to coach them is in the skills you have. It could be tossing the football or playing the piano. It could be fly-fishing or changing a tire. Again, the skill doesn’t matter as much as the engagement. Take them with you on whatever activities you enjoy and teach them what you know. I taught each of my kids how to play the guitar. I know one father who took his kids on backpacking trips from an early age.
- Finally, take the opposite tack. As the grow older, seek to enter the things in which they are interested. Your son may not take to baseball. Your daughter may not like the piano. Then find out what they gravitate toward and enter their world. I know of a father who failed to interest his son in hunting, but chose to enter the world of skateboarding when his son showed a real passion for it.
A Good Father Affirms
Engagement is a father’s action, but affirmation is a father’s words. It the intentional use of those words to create a feeling of security, love, and hope in a child. That affirmation can take many forms, but here are a few of the more important ones:
- The most obvious affirmation happens for a job well done or a game well performed. It’s the high five after the goal is scored or the congratulations on a good grade. It’s the compliment after the room is cleaned up or praise for the character shown in a difficult situation. The affirmation shows your pleasure in them and approval of them. But if it stops there, a child can easily intuit that it is the performance that garners the approval. This is the reason they begin to feel a pressure to perform. They equate failure with possible rejection.
- This is why affirmation needs to move on to something deeper. Listen to the difference between these two affirmation statements: “That was a mighty fine catch you made today.” “I’m so glad that you are my son.” The second one feels so different because it has nothing to do with the execution of a task. It is the validation of child’s being. It is the pleasure of just being a son or daughter, irrespective of gifts, talents, strengths, or temperament.
- The affirmation can finally take place in more formal settings on significant birthdays with rituals of blessing and prayer. Here the son or daughter is receiving in a structured way what has been already ongoing during the normal activities of life.
A Good Father Points to God the Father
However wonderful a father’s engagement and affirmation are to his children, they are not the greatest service he can offer. It is pointing away from himself to God the Father. A good father knows that he is but a faint echo of the resounding goodness of the Father. He also knows that his children will one day leave and navigate life without his presence. They will need to learn to rely on God’s presence. So what can a father do to point to God?
- It starts with being intentional about experiencing God together through Scripture and prayer. There are so many tools and devotionals helps out there (Click here for some resources from LifeWay). Find one that is age appropriate and go with it. When they were young, we used paper puppets and acted out Bible stories. As they got older, we would read from devotionals. I also prayed with them as they fell asleep well into their teen years. The possibilities are endless. If something doesn’t work, just try something else.
- As they grow older, tell them the story of your relationship with God. Tell them of the good times He gave you and the hard times He saw you through. Tell them of the hopes you have and the places you are still growing as a man. All of this will add grit and salt to the truths you have been telling them. They will see them in real time — in real life.
One final comment: Mothers need to play their part in all of this too (I know Heidi has certainly done that). But as fathers, we are called to take the lead. The investment in time will pay off in years of healthy family relationships, marked by the presence of a father loved by his children and surrounded by the presence of the Father Himself.
PS. I am taking a much-needed break from writing in August. You will receive the next post soon after Labor Day.