A step-by-step approach to becoming a more active and involved father.

Take a minute to think about your father and the role he played in your life when you were a child. How would you describe him as a father?

Now think about how your own children would describe you -- or how they will describe you when they get older. Do you play an active role in their lives? Do you have fun together? Do they talk to you about important issues? Are you a positive role model for them -- as a father, as a husband, and in all aspects of your life?

These can be sobering thoughts. There's no such thing as a perfect father, and many of us, on reflection, will see room for improvement. What can you do, given the pressures you face, to become the father you want to be? How can you be successful at work and at home?

 

The challenges of being a working father

Fathers feel pressure to provide financially for their families. They also want to be involved in the daily lives of their children. Sometimes it can feel like a choice between work or family, and when that happens, work pressures often win out. After all, children can't fire their parents or offer them raises and promotions. Rewards at work are usually more immediate and obvious than the rewards that come from being more involved at home.

It doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. In fact, studies show that men who are involved with their children are actually more likely to succeed at work. The skills needed to be a good father and effective worker turn out to be very similar. In both roles, success comes from connecting and cooperating with other people, adapting to quickly changing conditions, and earning the support of others to achieve results.

Single fathers face their own set of challenges. If you're a single father, you may not see your children every day, and you may feel a greater urgency to make good use of the time you do have together. If you're raising children entirely on your own, you face the difficult challenge of being both parent and provider.

 

Identifying the obstacles

A number of forces combine to make it hard for men to be the fathers they'd like to be. Some of these forces are common to both men and women, and some are unique to men.

  • Time pressures. Work demands can make it hard to find time for family. Work demands have a way of increasing over time. Electronic communications make it easier than ever to keep working after you get home -- and harder than ever to make time for family.
  • Attitudes about men's roles at work and at home. Many men tip the balance in their lives toward work out of fear of what others will think. They worry that if they show they care about their families, they will somehow show that they don't care about work. It takes a confident father, for example, to take paternity leave to care for a new baby. Whether it's spoken or not, many people hold to the belief that caring for young children is "women's work" and that a father's place is on the job.
  • Lack of parenting skills. Many men don't have role models for the kind of fathers they want to be. They may want to be more involved in raising their children than their own fathers were, but it isn't always clear how to do it. After a demanding day at work, it can be hard to muster the patience to deal calmly and cheerfully with a crying baby, a whining 4-year-old, or a rebellious teenager.
  • Disagreements with spouse. While many people want their partners to participate equally at home, partners often disagree about the best way to handle parenting situations. Without confidence in their parenting skills, men may respond to this conflict by withdrawing and letting a partner deal with the children. The result: Both partners are often unhappy with the balance of responsibilities.

 

Getting past the obstacles

The obstacles to successful fatherhood are real; but they're not insurmountable. As with any big challenge, the solution comes through progress made one small step at a time.

 

Step 1: Recognizing the importance of fatherhood

Remind yourself of why the effort is so important: It's because you play a crucial role in your children's lives. Children with involved and supportive fathers gain a platform of self-confidence and strength on which to build a successful adult life. A stronger relationship with your children can also make your own life that much fuller and more satisfying.

Whether you're raising sons or daughters, your own example as a father is providing a positive role model that may be reflected some day in how your children deal with their own families, and how they raise your grandchildren.

 

Step 2: Pushing through "imaginary" obstacles at work

Many fathers blame the work environment or their immediate supervisors for their inability to spend more time with their children. Some of this is real. Sometimes we need to put in long hours to meet critical business needs, and there are plenty of driven and unsupportive managers in the world. Much of the pressure comes from inside ourselves -- from worry about how a manager might respond if we asked for greater flexibility in our work hours, for example, or for time off to see a child perform in a school play.

It can take courage to ask, but until you do, you don't really know how much of this work pressure is real and how much is just your imagination. Many fathers are surprised to find out how much room for maneuver they do have in their schedules when they explore the issue with their managers.

Before you have this conversation, be sure to think through your request from your manager's point of view. How will the work get done if you take the afternoon off or change your regular work hours? If you want to come in earlier and leave earlier a couple of days a week, for example, you might point out that you could be available to serve customers in different time zones, or that you'll be able to complete more project work with some uninterrupted time early in the morning.

 

Step 3: Connecting with your children

One-on-one time

When you think back to your happiest memories of childhood, chances are you'll recall a time when a parent, a grandparent, or some other adult spent some special time with you -- just you. Hopefully, this will be true for your children, too. Time together as a family can be wonderful, but if you have more than one child, make sure you find ways to spend special time with each of them. It might be a trip to the library, a walk in a park, a game of catch, or doing a project together. Bedtime reading offers a good opportunity for one-on-one time. Even tasks like cooking, yard work, washing the car, or basic home repairs (keeping safety in mind) can be made into special times when done with a child.

A good way to build one-on-one time into your schedule is to make a list with your child (with each child, if you have more than one) of the things you like to do together. You'll find two sheets for making these lists at the end of this article. Copy them if you need more. We've divided the list into short activities (those you could do in an hour or less at home or in your neighbourhood) and longer ones (those that would take more than an hour or that involve planning or travel). Feel free to make the list longer if you and your child have enough time and ideas.

As you fill out the list with your child, keep expenses in mind. You may end up doing any or all of these over the next few weeks, so be careful to make them activities you can easily afford. The goal is to spend time together and have fun, and that needn't cost any money at all.

When you finish the list, use it to pick something to do together whenever you have some free time. You might commit to a short activity once a week and a longer activity once a month. (Be sure your goals are reasonable. Promising an activity every day and three on the weekends just isn't workable for most people.) To choose, roll dice, point with your eyes closed, or make a spinner with as many numbers as you have choices and let your child spin. If your child doesn't want to take chances, read from the list and let her pick.

Simply making the list is a way to spend special time with a child. You'll probably be surprised and pleased to hear your child's ideas. As you get started on the activities, you'll probably be surprised at how fun this one-on-one time can be.

Do your best to keep this as special time for your child. Try not to be distracted by other worries. If the phone rings, for example, you don't have to answer it. Letting it ring can send a good signal to your child that you really care about this time with her.

 

Real conversations

We all know the answer we get when we ask a child, "What did you do today?" Nine times out of 10 it will be "Nothing." That doesn't have to be the extent of your conversation. If you know enough about what's gone on that day (either by remembering the plans for the day or by getting a telephone update from home before you leave work), you can ask specific questions: "Did you have fun with Thomas this afternoon?" "What books did you find at the library today?" or "I hear you made cookies. What part did you do?" When you ask these kinds of questions you have a better chance of starting a real conversation with your child. You might also break the ice by telling your child something about your day -- maybe something you saw on the way home or something funny that happened to you at work.

Take cues from your child, too. Instead of starting from what you are thinking about (what happened in school, whether the homework is done), observe what your child is doing and use that activity as a place to connect. If your school-age child is reading when you get home, sit down next to him with your own reading for a few minutes, then ask him about his book. If your child is drawing, pretending to be a knight, or making an imaginary meal, join in the play yourself. It can be hard to shift gears like this, but if you can, the reward may be an engaging conversation with your child -- and a clean break from work at the end of the day.

The other key to good conversations -- with children or adults -- is to listen. Your child may not be ready to talk when you first get home. Be ready when he is. Try not to be so busy or distracted yourself that you miss the opening for a conversation.

 

Stay in touch when you're away

If you travel for work, you'll need to find ways to replace the daily rituals of bedtime stories, homework help, or breakfast together with other kinds of connection with your children. A phone call home at an expected time can reassure your child that you're still paying attention. Email and texting are convenient ways to communicate with children old enough to read, but they lack the emotional connection of a voice conversation. Web-cam technology can allow you to see your children while you talk -- and for your children to see you and where you're staying.

You might leave a note for your child to open and read while you're away. Some parents record a message for a younger child to play while they're away -- telling a story or simply saying hello. You might ask your child for something of his to bring with you on your trip: a drawing he's made, a toy that will remind you of him (that he won't miss), or a photograph.

 

Step 4: Spending time with your spouse

Over time, couples can grow to take each other for granted. With children, it can be especially hard to find the time to keep your relationship alive, close, and fun.

It's normal for the arrival of a baby to shift a couple's attention from each other to this new, and very demanding, member of the family. Over time you also need to find ways to keep paying attention to each other. Two of the most effective ways are to go out together on regular dates and to build rituals for connecting with each other.

 

Dating

A weekly or monthly date can do wonders for a relationship. If you don't make time for each other in your schedules, it's easy to let weeks or even months go by without special time together away from the children. By planning a regular date, you help to keep fun and closeness in your relationship.

Dating doesn't have to be expensive. If you're worried about the cost of a babysitter, you might trade sitting with friends or neighbours who also have children. If the cost of dinner or a movie is likely to cause stress rather than relieve it, think about an afternoon walk in a favourite park or through a neighbourhood you'd both like to explore, or go window-shopping and leave your credit cards at home.

Whatever you do, spend time together planning a date you both will enjoy. Your idea of a good time together may be very different from your partner's. Planning a date together will not only help you avoid disappointment, it's also an important way to connect as a couple.

 

Rituals for connecting with each other

Early in their relationship, many couples have pet names for each other, or special ways of saying goodbye at the start of the workday or goodnight before falling asleep. They may spend Sunday mornings together sharing the newspaper over coffee, bring home flowers for each other, or make a favourite meal together.

Over time, many of us let these rituals disappear. Pet names may seem silly as we grow older. Now that we have children, weekend mornings no longer offer the same sort of relaxed time together. We grow out of the habit of calling each other at work or bringing home flowers. Rituals are just as important to your relationship now as they were when you were a new couple. They remind you that you can still count on each other, and that you both still love and appreciate each other.

If the old rituals no longer seem to work for you, find new ones. After the children are asleep, for example, instead of immediately starting in on household tasks or the work you brought home, you might sit down together with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. If you're too tired for talk, simply sitting together and reading or watching a television show you both like can foster a sense of connection. Or, you might get up early and have a private breakfast together in the morning.

Connecting rituals don't have to stop when you're apart, either. A quick phone call during the workday to see how things are going, or a short "thinking of you" email are both ways of showing your appreciation for each other. When you're away on business, a bedtime or morning phone call can be an important ritual. You might make one call to say goodnight to the kids and another, later on, to talk with your partner.

 

Step 5: Taking care of yourself

It's hard to be a patient and understanding father when you're feeling tense, worried, and pressured. As one parenting expert put it, "You can be nicer than you feel -- but not much." As a father, you need the good humour to distract a stubborn 2-year-old with silliness, to coach a fourth grader calmly through his homework, or to deal fairly and openly with a teenager who's testing your limits. To do that, you need to make some room in your life to attend to your own needs.

 

Time out

When things get tense at work, a 10-minute walk outside or to the other side of the building can help you clear your head and brace yourself to tackle the problems you face. Even that small amount of time to yourself can break a feeling of escalating tension and help you regain a sense of control over your situation. In the same way, listening to soothing music or reading a diverting book on your way home from work can help reduce tension.

 

Exercise

Regular exercise not only improves your health and gives you some time to yourself, it actually builds your emotional resilience and helps you deal with life's aggravations more calmly. A half-hour walk at lunchtime, a run three or four times a week, or an early-morning workout -- however you get your exercise, it's time well spent.

 

Time for special interests and friends

Don't let work and family responsibilities absorb all of your time and energy. In the long run, you'll be a better father -- and a better worker -- if you leave some room in your life for personal interests. They might be reading, watching movies, hiking, or an occasional evening with friends. Just as you can find ways to spend one-on-one time with your kids if you try, by focusing on what's important in your life you can generally find time for your favourite activities.

Being a good father is really about being a good parent, finding ways to balance work and family responsibilities, and building a solid relationship with your significant other. Remember: Small changes, one step at a time, are the way to make real progress.

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