Becoming a More Effective Father

By Israel Helfand, M.S., Ph.D.

Fatherhood brings with it both conflict and satisfaction. Many men enjoy the time they spend with their children and feel effective as a parent. But fatherhood often comes with much struggle.

When a man realizes he is going to be a father, he may feel overwhelmed with stress. Many professionals believe men have an underlying fear of being rejected by the wife in favor of the child. There is no question that the birth of a child brings much change in many areas of a couple’s life – marital relationship, financial priorities, sexual frequency, time alone, etc. These changes must be grieved, and many men try desperately to avoid that. This grieving process is rarely explored by men and has been referred to by the men I’ve worked with as sacrifice.

As a father, plan for and expect the lows with the highs. Be cautious not to let the lows stop you from taking an active role as a father. There are many different aspects of fathering, depending upon your child’s age or developmental stage which we can discuss in another column.

Statistics show that the amount of time fathers spend with their children varies from 37 seconds a day with an infant to one hour a day with an adolescent. These figures are for intact families. After divorce, 50% of adolescent children have no contact, 30% have sporadic contact and 20% see their father once a week or more. Average it all out and I believe you’ll find that fathers spend approximately 10 minutes a day with their children. Samuel Osherson says, “We have been sitting on a psychological time bomb within the younger generation of men and women now coming of age… I believe that the psychological or physical absence of fathers from their families is one of the greatest underestimated tragedies of our times.”

It is important for us to address our issues with our own fathers and come to terms with the struggles of our own childhoods. Our training to be a father begins as a child being fathered by our own fathers, or surrogate fathers.

So what does this really mean as far as our fathering is concerned? For many men, there is more rage and sadness related to fatherhood than they can bear, so they distance themselves from their families. Men have described this to me as saving their children from the anger, sadness, and disappointment they feel toward their own fathers. Workaholism often becomes a compensation for intimacy – a way of making up for their unexpressed disappointment, feelings of failure, emptiness, fear or confusion. Men see work as a way to express their love to their children; unfortunately, love is not what is communicated at all. If we desire to be more effective fathers, if we are to really make a change in the way our children are fathered, and hence defuse the time bomb of coming generations, we need to pull out the father inside us and begin to heal any wounds that may exist. A few ideas follow:

  • Assess your priorities. For example, time at work vs. time with children. Are your values matching your behavior?. Think about it, then talk about it. Maybe you’ll want to do something about it.
  • Children need to know that they are welcomed. Being told and shown this is the equivalent of a blessing, and the lack of this blessing is equivalent to a curse.
  • Spend time alone with your children running, wrestling, playing ball, hiking, or being otherwise physically involved.
  • Learn to make “I” statements, such as “I like” or “I want” or “I feel.
  • Avoid accusations, judgments, interpretations, commands, demands, or questions.
  • Share your own journey with your children. Tell them stories about your own childhood. You needn’t tell them everything, just what you feel from your heart.
  • When the need to discipline or to clarify a situation comes up, reverse roles. In other words have them become Dad and visa versa. You will be amazed at their insight, and the solutions they come up with. You will also see yourself as Dad in their eyes.