Fathers have a powerful role to play in their children’s lives as they often provide very different input than mothers. Studies have shown that involved fathers have a positive effect on almost all areas of child development, including intellectual ability, educational achievement, psychological well-being, and social behaviour. While the degree that a father can be involved on a day to day basis varies greatly depending on the particular family set-up, fathers can make the most of whatever time they do have with their children and maximise their impact, by considering a few areas in particular:
Separating work from family time
Flexible working clearly has many benefits but also means that it is far harder to switch off from work than ever before. It is tempting to think that children won’t notice if you quickly check email on your phone but they will pick up if you are distracted or your mind is elsewhere. It is frustrating for anyone if they don’t feel properly listened to or understood and children are no exception. They may pester you continually or start behaving badly to capture your attention any way they can. Alternatively, some children may feel defeated and quietly give up on you.
What to do:
• Put phones aside and truly concentrate on being with your children for a period of time. They will delight in having your full attention and will get the message that you think enough of them to totally put work on hold for a time to be with them. Try to clear your mind of any other distractions and focus on enjoying them in the moment.
• Avoid feeling pressured to do ‘something special’ or elaborate. Children crave time with their fathers and are often perfectly happy joining you with jobs or just chilling out with lego or a book.
Although fathers are more hands-on than ever before, mothers are still more likely to be responsible for taking care of children, managing their routines and arranging childcare, a dynamic often set up during maternity leave. Often mothers develop a set way of doing things, making it difficult for working fathers to come home and not only enjoy being with their child, but join in the daily routines without some sort of criticism, whether implied or explicit. This can lead to fathers feeling somewhat redundant and can set up of pattern of further withdrawal, reinforcing the problem.
What to do:
• Carve out a niche that is yours e.g. bathtime, bedtime story, or breakfast / dinner time at the weekend. Choose something that you can commit to the majority of the time and try to make it something that is an everyday event to ensure it happens.
• Make the most of weekends – explicitly discuss the division of chores and fun time with the kids so both parents get some of each.
• School involvement: most parents can’t attend every event, so pick the things that are most important to your child. Sports day might seem more important to you than a choir performance but if your child is prouder of his singing than his sports achievements, that’s the one to go to (and explain this to your child).
Being a good role model
Children learn their ‘templates’ for managing relationships, emotions and social situations from people who are significant in their life. Fathers are often the main masculine role model for their children. Sons will watch their fathers for a concrete example of the man they could become and daughters establish a template for how they can expect to interact and be treated by other men and future partners.
What to do:
• Having a good relationship with your child’s mother, whether you are together or not, has been shown to be the main factor underpinning the positive impact fathers can have. Leading by example and being supportive and respectful of your partner sets up implicit expectations to children about the right ways to behave and how to expect to be treated in relationships.
• If you’re feeling tired, stressed or if you’re having a bad time at work then you’re bound to feel less patient than usual and more short tempered. If you feel that you are about to lose the plot with your children, take some time out to calm down. If you do overreact to a small misdemeanour, then it is important that you are explicit with your children and give them a short explanation, and apology if appropriate. Even older primary aged children are still concrete in their thinking and may automatically assume they are somehow responsible for your mood unless told otherwise.
Building strong relationships
Research has shown that fathers are more likely to engage with children in a directive way through giving instructions, correcting behaviour, suggesting solutions for problems and leading play. While all of these are sometimes necessary and even beneficial, they are not strategies that necessarily promote close personal relationships. Finding alternative ways to interact with children that deepen your relationship will stand you in good stead as your children get older and their issues more complex.
What to do:
• Take a step back from noticing and correcting poor behaviour and refocus on what your child is doing well, their good qualities and what you enjoy about them.
• Let children guide the conversation so you put more focus on genuinely listening and responding to what they say.
• It is tempting to automatically give advice when children come up against problems and feel frustrated if they do not take it up. Helping children to think through possible solutions for themselves and evaluate which might work best will encourage independent thinking, help them feel understood and make it more likely that they will bring future problems to you.
• Rough and tumble play, often uniquely a father’s role, is an important part of children’s physical development. It helps children deal with aggressive impulses, gives them an opportunity for intense physical contact and allows them to test out their strength in a safe manner.
• As they get older and their outside activities take up more and more time, finding a way to share their interests is a good way to spend quality time together, even if it involves learning about something that’s not obviously interesting to you.
• Consider one-to-one outings/trips away with one child for maximum bonding.
• Be particularly careful with your girls: studies show that men tend to spend more time with their sons growing up than they do with their daughters, especially leading up to adolescence and puberty.
Managing work trips
Finally, many jobs these days involve travelling and spending time away from the family. Even though children can adapt to this well, it is still worth thinking about what might be going on for them and how to keep them feeling secure. Younger children who have not yet developed a good understanding of time are more likely to feel confused by changes in routine but even older children and those used to regular short separations might get upset at a slightly longer trip away, which often takes parents by surprise.
What to do:
• Visual charts or calendars showing how many nights you will be away can be really helpful.
• Giving some warning to prepare them is important and explaining to them the necessity of the trip can help them understand that you are not leaving them because you prefer to be away from them.
• Acknowledging that it does feel strange when a member of the family is away can help them understand their own feelings.
• Telling them explicitly what you will miss about them (rather than just that you will miss them generally) can make things more concrete for them and help them feel better.
• For children of reading age, leaving a few little notes around for them to discover while you are away, along with the obvious telephone and email contact, can be a nice extra touch to help children feel connected in your absence.
• When you come home, be prepared for them to have got on without you and expect that it might take a day or two to fit back in with family routines.
On a final note, as a working father, there are likely to be times when you may feel a bit disconnected from what is going on for the family and everyone’s lives seem to be going in different directions. When this happens, there is a temptation to withdraw and let everyone get on with it. However, this feeling is usually a cue that you should try to do the opposite: find a way to get more involved again, don’t underestimate how much your children benefit from your input.
Thanks to The Parent Space for this article