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Towards confident fathering

How men can get more involved in their children's lives.
By William J. Doherty
January/February 2001 1.1.01

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Fathers are often left out of discussions of effective parenting. In fact, when people refer to generic "parenting," they're usually talking about what mothers do. In the 17th and 18th centuries, fathers were in charge of their children's moral development, reading to them from the Bible and making sure they behaved well. This changed drastically in the 19th century, when fathers moved into the industrial labor force and families migrated to the cities. Whereas earlier fathers were present to their children all day long, as co-workers in the farming community, fathers who worked in factories were gone from the family from morning to night. Tradition still referred to them as head of the family, but actually they took the lesser role of backup for the mother and disciplinarian of last resort.

For about 100 years, there's been a movement to make fathers less aloof. In fact, the term "dad," first used in the early 1900s, suggests that fathers can be buddies and playmates to their children and not stern taskmasters. Since then, dad has replaced father in the lexicon of parenting, and in two-parent families the role of playing with the kids has been added to the role of backup for Mom.

Too often, fathers aren't expected to do the hard work of raising responsible children—the down-and-dirty work of making sure they do their chores and homework, of making sure they show respect for others, of finding opportunities for them to contribute to their communities. Yet it's worth the effort for fathers to become more involved and connected with their children and exert more influence on the children's lives. Here are some ideas for how to do it:

  • Spend as much solo time with your children as you can, starting from the day they're born. Being alone with children not only strengthens your bond with them, it also helps you develop your own spontaneity and problem-solving skills.
  • See yourself as an on-duty parent whenever you're at home, unless you and your spouse have negotiated downtime. Don't assume you can tune out the children because your spouse is around.
  • Avoid handing a child over to your spouse when you get frustrated, and resist your spouse's attempts to rescue you when you're in charge of the children. If you're feeding the baby, hang in there when he or she gets fussy, and don't let your spouse automatically take over—unless there are also times when you take over from your spouse.
  • Resist children's attempts to decide that your spouse will take permanent charge of special activities like bedtime rituals.
  • Back up your spouse's discipline, and fill in with the children when your spouse needs a break.
  • Do at least half the limit-setting with the children. This won't hurt your relationship with them, and it will make you a better parent and partner.
  • Don't rely solely on your spouse to research and develop a philosophy of child-rearing.
  • Take more leadership in family rituals such as meals.
  • Develop a wide repertoire of parenting skills—playing, nurturing, listening, setting limits.
  • Look for opportunities to share your values with your children, making sure to do it respectfully.
  • Work on maintaining your marriage, and protect it from the children.

Many fathers are operating at about one-third capacity, mostly because of cultural expectations. But children best become citizens of families and communities when they have a hands-on father who can do all the jobs of being a parent.

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