Even When You Don’t Live Together
Research is unequivocal. Dad matters. As long as he is safe towards his family, the more a dad is present and involved in his children’s lives in a positive way, the better the outcomes for everyone. Fathers make unique and direct contributions to their children’s wellbeing, from better physical health to more prosperity. Children with involved dads have higher IQs, and tend to be more prosperous. They also have a better sense of self-esteem, and grow up with more self-control, confidence and self-worth.
That’s why we celebrate fathers on the first Sunday of September each year. Father’s Day is supposed to be a day of joy, belonging and love and a recognition of the important role dad plays in the lives of his children. For many families the day is exactly that – joyful. But it can also be a day of difficulty for some dads and their daughters or sons.
In certain challenging circumstances dads don’t live with their children. And in other situations, there may be dads who are working or away from the family for other reasons. (Father’s Day can also be tough for single mums, or for kids who can’t see their dad at all. Unfortunately, that’s an article for another day.)
How can Dads who aren’t around their family on Father’s Day make it a positive day for themselves and their children?
How to be present when you’re not present?
It can be tricky being present while not actually being physically with someone. But some interesting recent research indicates that it is not the actual amount of time that is spent with your kids that matters (although we all know it is important). Instead, it is the subjective experience of time that matters. Kids need to experience ‘fluid, meaningful time with each parent’ – the kind of time that allows for deep and natural connection.
In short, our children understand that we cannot always be with them. But their experience of time while we are with them is what matters. Do they feel like we’re part of their lives?
Here’s how to do that. These ideas won’t work for every dad in every situation. But they’re helpful thought-starters that might give you a gentle assist if you’re struggling.
Make time for everyday things.
To the extent you can, make time to do the tasks and activities that are part of your child’s everyday life. Do some school drop offs and help them with their homework. Drive them to rugby training or piano practice. Play in the garden and have breakfast together. More than big exciting events, these everyday things build a naturally close relationship with your child – even if you can’t do them every day.
For a FIFO worker, be involved when you are home. For a divorced/separated dad, do more than just fun weekends. Be involved in the nitty gritty when custody decisions allow.
Have some one-on-one time.
When time is short, it is easy to try to maximise your efforts. When you have more than one child, this might take the form of spending your available time with all of your kids all the time. And if you are a remarried parent, you may also have a new partner and step-kids thrown into the mix.
As much as you are able, it is great to be able to spend one-on-one time with each of your kids. Even if it’s just 20 minutes – time alone with your child gives them a chance to talk to you about worries or concerns or just things that are going on in their lives, without other distractions. Kids adore having dad’s full attention.
Make contact easy.
With today’s technology, distance is barely a barrier. Phone calls, emails, text messages and FaceTime, mean that you can reach out to your kids in many different ways, many times a day. But more importantly, it means your kids can reach out to you.
Make sure they know how to contact you. And then make sure they know that they can contact you whenever they need to.
Importantly, make contact regularly. Too many kids have told me “My dad never texts or calls. We only talk when he has to be in touch.”
Create new family traditions
When you aren’t around all the time, for whatever reason, it is easy to feel out of the loop when it comes to family traditions. Yet family traditions are an important way to stay engaged with your kids.
If you’re a dad that works long distance, you can create traditions that you can do whenever you are in town. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pancakes for breakfast the first day home or kicking a ball in the garden in the afternoons. It’s just important that it’s something that you and your kids enjoy doing together.
If you’re a dad who’s living away from his kids for a portion of the time due to separation or divorce, you can create new ‘family’ traditions with the kids. Again, they don’t have to be big or expensive things – bike rides on the weekends, or pizza nights are great. Again, it’s the little things that make the biggest impact.
I recently spoke with a dad who was separated from his children by the court. He had been investigated (and subsequently found not guilty) of something that meant he could only see his children for one hour each weekend with court-ordered supervision. He made every effort. He went to every appointment. He did whatever it took.
At times his children didn’t want him to show up. At times they refused to speak to him. But his consistency, willingness, and effort paid off. Over a couple of years they learned to talk together, play games together, and develop a relationship that has fortified him and his children. Even in the most trying circumstances, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
Research shows that kids need to have meaningful time with each parent. That means you, Dad.
So, Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who are trying their best every day, even when it’s not easy!
Did you miss the Fathers Don’t Mother webinar? Purchase the recording here