When it comes time to express exactly what we love about our family members, we might feel at a loss for words. In these cases, we look to the sentimental greeting cards in the check-out line, right next to the sticks of gum and lip balm. These cards tend to lead with questions like, “What is a father?”, which might be followed by a clever and poignant rhyming ditty:
“A dad is a person who’s loving and kind, / who so often knows what you have on your mind. / He’s someone who listens, suggests and defends—a dad can be one of your very best friends.”
These days, simple greeting cards don’t always reflect the many different types of families, personalities, and fathers that exist. But the need for attachment, trust, and engagement within the father-child relationship are timeless, despite how radically different today’s model of fatherhood can look in comparison to decades past.
To draw a more direct connection between fathers of the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 21st century, we sought to gather inspiring information and advice on fatherhood: patterns, accepted values, and hoped-for trends. Here are the best bits of knowledge we found:
#1 Fatherhood is as Fatherhood Does
Forget about preconceived notions you may have based on family tradition, social media, or your own expectations: Today’s dads are forging new paths, and today’s children are better for it.
Writing for the LA Times this month about Father’s Day, Patrice Apodaca points out that in 1960, nearly three-quarters of children lived in a family containing two married parents who were both in their first marriage. Things changed dramatically between then and 2015, when the Pew Research Center concluded, “There is no longer one dominant family form in the U.S. Parents today are raising their children against a backdrop of increasingly diverse and, for many, constantly evolving forms.” Today’s “dad” might still be a biological father – but he could just as easily be a stepdad, a non-biological father (perhaps one of two in the family!), or an uncle, cousin, or godfather serving as a male role model.
Tip for practical application: Model your own version of fatherhood for your children. If it’s a son you’re raising, he will approach his own future fatherhood with open and flexible expectations, acquired from watching you parent in your own way. If you’re raising a daughter, the qualities she may look for in the future father of her children will be forever shaped by her first and strongest example of fatherhood – you.
#2 Showing Up is Huge
Never underestimate the power of your presence. Scientific research supports the idea that fathers’ involvement improves academic performance: Results on multiple studies indicate that children with involved fathers exhibit fewer behavioral problems and better language skills, and score higher on reading achievement. It’s important to note that the benefits of involvement are consistently present, even in the case of fathers who don’t live with their children.
There are many ways to become involved with your children’s lives, interests, and passions.
The late Frank del Olmo was a journalistic legend at the L.A. Times, and he was known as a fierce advocate for Latinos. He also took on the role of a father to an autistic child. Some of his most lasting work may be contained in his annual Christmas columns, where he detailed his life with his son Frankie, and described his family’s journey through the complex systems of healthcare, education, and specialized therapy in an effort to best provide for his son. Del Olmo wrote his last column on the topic when Frankie was almost twelve; in it, he recognized that Frankie’s transition into adolescence would bring a fresh set of challenges, above and beyond those of the average teenager. Despite his journalist’s instinct to commit everything to paper, he sensed his son’s need for increased privacy, as well as his own responsibility in shepherding Frankie into manhood. He closed that column by saying, “The two great gifts I can give…are my presence and his privacy.”
Quick Tip for Success: Silence the smartphone when you’re with your child. Showing up means bringing your undivided attention!
#3 Get Your Hands Dirty
No, we’re not talking about the obvious (though no one will mind if you take diaper duty off their hands).
Decades of media stereotypes haven’t done Dad much good: TV dads work all the time, with little time left for family, beyond the standard questions: “How was school?” and “Is your homework done?” Is this an accurate picture of real life? We don’t think so.
Fathers who bond with their kids over physical activity reap a variety of rewards—not the least of which is improved health for the entire family. Whether you take a walk, go for a run or bike ride, head out to fish, or throw a Frisbee in the park, you’ll quickly find that uninterrupted time together forms strong bonds. You may find out more about your child during an hour spent hiking than you did during the entire last month.
Choosing a hobby to share is a great way for dads to create a unique bond with a son or daughter—creating special memories that last a lifetime. Learning something new together facilitates communication, and the process carries an even broader developmental bonus: LAUP Family Engagement Coach Luis Barajas observes that when fathers of preschool children complete labor-intensive home projects with their children, both participants are prompted to learn new skills. “When [children] can see their dad in a vulnerable state of imperfection,” Barajas says, “It allows them to humanize their parent and see that it’s okay to fail.”
Parenting tip from the pros: An active setting allows fathers to easily model important life skills—such as dealing with setbacks, working toward goals, and rising to a challenge. Don’t be afraid to learn alongside your child! The process of learning and growing together will help you create a strong parent-child relationship.