In honor of Father’s Day, a special guest post from single-dad Dave Taylor from GoFatherhood.com
Nothing has been so profound in my life than the day my first child was born. Suddenly I went from being an adult focused primarily on myself to being a caretaker, protector and guardian to a tiny little creature, a baby so helpless that she couldn’t speak, couldn’t communicate her needs, and couldn’t give me encouragement when I did the right thing or feedback when I was doing something wrong.
Contrary to popular belief, however, I don’t think that men are born with the “great Dad gene”, so learning how to go from being a typical self-absorbed adult to being an attentive, nurturing father involves effort. It involves you being able to accept criticism, ponder your behaviors, remember the good (and bad) of your own childhood, and expend effort – sometimes a lot of effort – to change who you are and how you interact with the world.
Don’t worry, women aren’t born with the “great Mom gene” either, by the way. They’re just way better at talking about what’s difficult with their pals, sharing their ups and downs, and learning through childhood play how to nurture and coddle a baby. Yup, the sad truth: while we boys were busy practicing for battle, the girls were practicing to eventually be moms. Oops.
Still, you can learn how to be a great Dad and with three kids of my own (16,13, and 9) I figure I have a combined 38 years of parenting upon which to base my advice. Since I’m a single Dad and have been for over six of those years, it’s really like a 2x multiplier, so I’m giving myself credit for 50 parenting years. We good with that? Cool.
Based on all that accumulated parenting experience, I believe that the two most essential skills that any good Dad can acquire and nurture are: LISTENING and EMPATHY.
If you’re like me, you live your life at a pretty fast pace. Emails, text messages, phone calls, it’s often hurry up, I’ve got three more things I need to deal with. That can be fun and there’s a certain sense of satisfaction when lots of things can be managed simultaneously, but that’s exactly the wrong approach to take with your children.
It’s like that idiotic myth of “quality time”. That’s BS. What your kids need at all ages is ATTENTION. In large doses. That’s the basis of LISTENING and the reality is that if you’re busy texting your colleagues, setting up a tee time or skimming the latest spreadsheet from the boss, you’re not paying attention to your children. Whether you take them to the park or are helping them with homework, they need to be front and center.
A radical experiment: when you’re spending time with your children, put your devices away. Really. Unless you’re a trauma doc on call, email from the boss (or wife, or girlfriend) can wait 30min or an hour. Remember that golden rule you learned in school? Model to your children the behavior you’d like to have them exhibit towards you too. (that’s why I have specific acceptable cell phone use times for my teens: I hate talking to the top of their head while they’re texting friends as much as I imagine they hate me doing the same thing).
Attention is important, but the reason you want to give them undivided attention is so you can LISTEN to what they’re telling you. Buried in that stream of babble and trivia about their daily lives are their concerns about school, friends, family, the future, the drama of their existence, the reality of their lives. If you’re not actually listening, paying attention and processing what they’re telling you, they’ll just learn to shut up. When they hit those teen years you’ll be long since shut out and they’ll be isolated or just find someone else who listens. Perhaps Mom, perhaps some gang-banger in the ‘hood, perhaps that creepy old guy down the street.
The harder skill to learn is EMPATHY, however. It’s one thing to listen to your children tell you what’s going on, the problems they’re having with the class bully or their first crush and how the teacher yelled at them even though they were innocent of the crime, but another skill entirely to CARE about what they’re telling you.
I know, I know, you’re busy negotiating a $5mil deal for work and a problem’s come up, all while your son is telling you how he hates baseball because he can’t hit the darn ball when he’s at bat. His problems? Just as big to him as yours are to you. That’s where you get to work on that key Dad skill: being able to take a deep breath, get out of your own world and recognize that to your son, being a better baseball player might actually be life and death important. It’s certainly just as important to him as being able to close the deal is for you.
Quite frankly, empathy is something I had in short supply when I first because a father. With a crying newborn and little experience around babies (moms have us beat in that department because they socialize with other moms + babies and babysit as teens, while we’re out working on our cars) I found the experience of a newborn both astonishing — it’s MY baby! — and frustrating as heck, since I had no idea why she’d be crying, upset, irritable, not sleeping.
Here’s the good news: Empathy is not only a beneficial skill for parenting, it’s a good skill to have in life overall. It’ll help you understand why Joe in accounting is so depressed about his cat dying even though you personally hate cats, why your sister Mary refuses to speak to Uncle Bill even though you and Uncle Bill get along splendidly, and why your daughter’s tattered shoes really are a big, big deal in her world.
So there you have it, my advice for how to be a great dad on this Father’s Day: learn how to LISTEN and EMPATHIZE with your children. Oh, and remember to be silly and have fun with them. Children are such a blessing, such an amazing addition to your life. Don’t forget to enjoy it!
Dave Taylor has been writing about parenting and fatherhood for over a decade and maintains the popular GoFatherhood.com site where he writes about his experiences as a single dad to three wonderful children. He’s also a well-known tech expert and film critic, and is completely unsurprised his kids love movies and gadgets too. Find him online at DaveTaylorOnline.com.