“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” — Umberto Eco
Fathering, like parenting in general, happens when we are in the middle of something else. The most profound fathering occurs, I believe, not when we’ve settled in for a profound discussion or as we tell our children what to do or how to behave (although those are important).
Much to the chagrin of most parents I know, the most significant moments of parenting occur when we are least prepared for them. The awkward, stumbling response when our child asks a question we weren’t prepared for; the willingness to let a child “help” with the project at hand even if it is easier to do it ourselves; the realization that your children have been watching the way you interact with their other parent, both positively and negatively — these are the places where parenting — where fathering — occur.
As Father’s Day approaches, it is good to reflect on those unexpected moments of fathering, on the ways fathers can have a positive effect on the lives of their children every day, on the very small interactions that can have a big effect in the lives of children.
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Here are some of the ways that fathers can shape their children’s growth into healthy adults (thanks to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for this list).
• Fathers help early learning. Babies learn from everything around them, so when fathers interact with babies — holding them, talking to them — it shapes everything from vocabulary to problem-solving skills. A father who works with a baby’s other parent to create a home that is peaceful and safe helps a child learn to create a peaceful and safe environment later in life.
• Fathers can teach healthy behavior. Talking to children about what healthy relationships look like is as important as teaching a child to look both ways before crossing the street or to avoid a hot stove. One way children learn what to do and what not to do is that we tell them. Talking with kids about healthy relationships is critical in a culture where the messages that come from elsewhere often are degrading and damaging.
• Fathers can provide an anchor. Fathers can be a source of stability and reliability for a child, especially when that father models a commitment to the family. Children whose fathers provide unconditional love and support are more likely to turn to their father when they are in distress.
• Fathers can model healthy behavior. While it is important to tell our children what we want them to know, it is even more important to show them. Children learn what adult relationships should be like by watching the adults around them. A son who sees a father treat his mother with respect will be more likely to treat his own partner with respect as an adult. A daughter who watches her parents interact with mutuality and trust will want that in her own relationships as she grows.
This Father’s Day, let’s celebrate those fathers who work tirelessly and selflessly for the well-being of their children and their families. Thank you for all you do, every day, in ways large and small. It makes a difference.