Top Ten Tips for Being a Great Dad

Credit: The West Australian

Credit: The West Australian

In celebration of Father’s Day and to acknowledge the importance of fathers, Professor Bruce Robinson, director of the Fathering Project, UWA, and Western Australian of the Year 2013 offers dads the 10 top tips from The Fathering Project.

Dad dates

One of the simplest and yet most powerful strategies that enable fathers to connect to their children is dad dates. If dad bothers to spend time with each child, one-on-one, it generates an enormous feeling of worthwhileness. We suggest “Law of NOANOK” — No Other Adults, No Other Kids. It means the date involves just dad and just one of the children at a time.

Since our children were little my wife and I have each taken them out on dad dates or mum dates. Usually it has involved dinner somewhere the kids choose (fast food chains are banned) and a movie or something similar.

I learnt very quickly that if you think dad dates will be an opportunity to have deep and meaningful discussions and to “sort the kids out” you are wrong. If you try that the kids will always avoid these dates. They only work if dads listen and ask them about their friends and what they are enjoying or finding hard at school. If it becomes an inquisition or criticism it will be a failure.

Dad Trips

In one of my books I wrote a chapter about how dads can take their kids on trips, including work trips. These again are one-on-one events. Some years later I was at a conference and the president of the society came running up to me and nearly hugged me as he told me how he had read that chapter and his relationship with his teenage daughter had been transformed.

They were arguing and fighting all the time. He was desperate. So he took the opportunity to invite her with him on a conference trip to Paris. The conference lasted five days and they had another week and a half together as father and daughter.

He said that since they returned she had talked about nothing else other than that trip and the special times that they had together. He even heard her telling people that it was the “best few weeks of her life”. Then he stopped speaking, looked a bit teary, and said to me, “You know what Bruce”, “they were the best two weeks of my life as well”.

There is a magic about these trips. Again they follow the law of NOANOK. It doesn’t have to be Paris, but it does have to involve some effort. Travel together, be away together and be intentional about spending this time together.

Be creative about making time with kids

I am also amazed at how often men use work as an excuse for not spending time with their children. It is possible to be creative about making time. After a life-threatening backyard accident, I decided to begin walking to school with my kids in the morning. Like a lot of these things I did it because I felt I “should” then I ended up loving it.

There are other ways that you can work around the school day. Some men finish work early one day a week and take their kids to the beach or for an ice-cream. It is also important to come home and have dinner with the kids and turn the TV off during that time.

Families that eat together four nights a week or more reduce the risk of substance abuse in their children by half. It is interesting to me how many kids moan to their parents about having to turn the TV off and sit around the family table and then, 20 years later, say it was the best thing that ever happened in their childhood.

Help kids understand that they are special

I once interviewed David Gower, the former captain of the English cricket team, about fathering. When I asked him what he thought his girls needed from him, to my surprise he answered, “they need me to help them realise how special each of them is”. There was deep wisdom in this.

Every child is special and once they realise how special they are, all sorts of things happen. They don’t need to put other kids down (they are free to appreciate how special other kids are). Also, they are less likely to take drugs as they get older — they have worth without them.

To help kids understand their specialness you need to understand what it is about each of your children that is unique. It may be their personality, their talents, the way that they show kindness, interesting things that they have done, pathways they have chosen to take, or many other things. It is much more effective to identify those specific things and encourage the child in them than to use empty phrases such as “you are awesome” — kids spot that sort of hollowness very quickly.

And another important tip — help each of your children realise that they have a special future. They will probably never be famous, they don’t need to be in the top team or get into medical school, but they have a unique and wonderful future that will be a gift to the world and you are looking forward to seeing it and that they are here to live their own lives and not to live the life that you, as their parent want them to live.

Another way to help them feel special is to seek and value their opinions. Ask them what they think about politics, holiday choices, footy tipping or topics on the evening news. Importantly, avoid comparing any of your children to any other children inside the family or outside.

Practise listening

When we ask audiences of dads how good they are at listening, 98 percent do not put their hands up — they know how bad they are at listening. It is hard to resist the urge to jump in and solve the problems our kids have, to tell them what they should do or to criticise them. Often that comes out of a feeling of love for them — we are afraid that they will do the wrong thing so we want to fix it.

As a consequence kids, especially teenagers, refrain from telling their dads stuff because they are afraid of the lecture that they are about to get. I am not a good listener myself. I have learnt however to try to superglue my lips together and listen to what they have to say.

We suggest two useful strategies. First, avoid being the plumber or the policeman. The plumber fixes things — you don’t need to do that. The policeman makes judgments and arrests — avoid being judgemental and critical.

Second, remember the word “boomerang”. Most people in conversation boomerang the conversation back to themselves. We try to get dads to practise “harpooning” the person they are talking with — to never boomerang back to themselves.

So when a teenager says something about being at a party and the difficulties they have resisting the peer pressure to smoke, drink or to take drugs, it is easy to boomerang back to yourself and say “I remember when I was age . . .”. It is important to discuss your experience at some stage, but vastly more effective to continue to stick with what the child wants to say.

Don’t let your own feelings get in the way by overreacting to what they say. When they talk about drugs it is easy to get panicky and overreact. It doesn’t really help.

Get mobilised into the values war

Our kids are subjected to an enormous amount of pressure from television, movies, magazines and peers to adopt a series of values that are different from ours. This pressure can be enormous. Fathers are very powerful in establishing values in children, including values on sexuality, but if we don’t discuss and model a different set of values we leave the kids vulnerable to those pressures.

Be specific with them about values like trust, honesty, integrity, respect, racism, generosity to the poor. The best way is to model those values yourself, such as in your attitude to your neighbours, immigrants and people who are disabled, obese or “uncool”.

They will be watching you and will learn about how they will deal with other kids at school — it will influence whether they become bullies or not. I remain amazed at how many fathers have not talked to their sons and daughters about sexuality. Of course the kids are embarrassed, and they say they know it all already, but wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you knew that your father was going to talk to you about sex?

We have a little trick here that works well. We say to the kids, “I know you know it all already, but I read in a fathering book that I need to do this and I’ll feel really bad if I don’t, so can you please humour me on this”. It works a treat.

Don’t assume that your kids aren’t at risk of drug addiction

Every parent I know is frightened of their kids falling victim to substance abuse. Drugs are easily available in the community and are pushed very hard by individuals who are often addicts themselves and thus need the money. If you don’t get involved in helping your kids resist drugs you are giving these pushers a “free hit”.

Be aware of what drugs are around and what risks that each of them poses to your kids. Find out from your kids what the social and personal rewards are that they receive when they take drugs. Talk to your kids about peer pressure. When you talk to them make sure you listen.

It’s even more helpful if you can invite their friends over to your house and get to know them — often those friends will be quite lonely and desperate for a father figure in their lives.

One useful trick is to teach children useful phrases to use when drugs are being pushed at parties. Tell them that being confrontational with comments like “drugs are bad for you” doesn’t help. What is being more helpful is being able to “pass”. “Sorry, I have to play football/netball tomorrow” or “sorry, I have to work tomorrow”, passes much better.

Finally, it is important to state that without a doubt the best insurance against kids falling victim to peer pressure induced substance abuse is to have a good relationship with them.

Most importantly, if you establish a good relationship with your child from a young age the chances of them becoming a long-term drug addict plummets. By good relationship I should emphasise that a good relationship involves listening, fun times, helping kids feel special, as described above and not being critical or over disciplinary.

We have been surprised to find that the most common factor related to substance abuse is not the absence of a father but the presence of an overcritical over-disciplinarian father who makes a child feel worthless rather than worthwhile.

Finally, if you do discover that your child has taken drugs, don’t blow a fuse. The Fathering Project promotes a phrase for fathers to use when disciplining children which has been very effective. Instead of unloading your own emotion on them a phrase such as “I am very disappointed, but I do believe in you and I know that you are better than that, and we will work through this together” is way more powerful. It strengthens rather than diminishes the child’s sense of self and improves their likelihood of getting through that difficult time.

Be involved in your children’s education

Sit with your kids while they do their homework and help them work through it. Begin to stimulate their curiosity from a young age by taking them on visits to the museum or the public library. One good trick when you take your kids to the museum or any other exhibition is to get them to look at everything and then come back and get them to tell you what their favourite two exhibits were.

Another good trick is called “FART” time — this stands for Family Altogether Reading Time. It is when the whole family sits down, turns the TV off and reads together. The word is a bit naughty so the kids love the idea of it.

Critical to kids’ attitude to education is your attitude to the school and the teachers. I used to complain about my kids’ teachers but someone taught me that it would be much more helpful if I could thank the teachers for teaching my children and ask them how I could help. It is amazing to me how often people think that their children are geniuses “but for the teacher’s inadequacies”.

Understand that daughters are not the same as sons

We have asked more than 3000 dads what is it that their daughters need from them as dads, as distinct from their sons, and less than one per cent can answer this. Given the powerful effect of a father in a daughter’s life, this is frightening.

Dads need to be able to tell their girls regularly how beautiful they are, inside and out (not “pretty”, but beautiful inside and out). Daughters get signals from their dads about how they can expect to be treated by men. If dad treats her with respect then her bar of respect will be set high and she won’t put up with crap from men — if he doesn’t, then she is vulnerable.

Indeed fathers have a profound effect on the likelihood that a girl will grow up and have a successful long-term relationship with a man. Indeed the No.1 factor that determines the level of confidence a woman carries into her adult life is the relationship that woman had with her father.

Girls are vulnerable to words

They have their radar out for what their father or another strong father figure thinks of them and it is vital not to overlook that. Whereas boys learn as apprentices to their fathers, in shoulder-to-shoulder activities, girls are listening.

If your dad wasn’t much good, choose to break the cycle. Many men have not had good role models. So it is tempting for dads to give up and leave the parenting to mum and just become a provider and protector. That does not work. You have to choose to break that cycle and become a good dad yourself.

My hero in this regard is Tony Cooke. Tony grew up in very difficult circumstances. His father Eric was a serial murderer and the last person to be hanged in WA. This made things very difficult for Tony at home but also in the school playground. What is deeply impressive about Tony is that he is a wonderful man and a wonderful father. And he is very clear about the fact that he chose to break the cycle and learn how to be different.

It is unlikely that anybody reading this article would have a background as bad as Tony’s, so there is no excuse for not choosing to break the cycle. This involves being willing to learn about fathering (from books, seminars, father’s groups ) and then gradually putting into practice each of the things that other dads have found to be effective in particular situations.


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