Today’s ever hurried pace of life makes it tough for parents who struggle to carve out quality time with their children. This is often particularly difficult for dads who work long hours or whose family’s schedule is almost as busy as his. A tug of war wages between financial need and a high speed culture, and families are often caught in the middle.
Annapolis family therapist and author of Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship and Taking Charge of Anger, Dr. Robert Nay offers encouragement for busy dads or those acting as positive male role models. According to Nay, the role that men play in the lives of children is critical as they model appropriate behavior that sets healthy expectations for their future male relationships. “Whether boy or girl, roughly 50 percent of the people they will interact with will be male. Having appropriate male role models helps them develop realistic, rational beliefs about men. Most research indicates that if these healthy relationships aren’t present or work out poorly it can significantly impact a child’s development.”
Quantity vs. Quality
Dads often wonder how to carve out time with their children, but the case of how much time and how to spend it remains an unsolved mystery. Nay provides balance: “I’m a believer in that it takes time, but quality time is important because those are the moments you are in real relationship with your child, fully present,” he said. While some dads feel that playing video games or texting their child is bonding time, Nay stressed the value of uninterrupted, face to face conversations. “Whether you’re talking about a movie you just watched or a dinner table discussion, research shows us again and again that parents can have an impact on young developing brains by having these interactions with them. Areas of the brain affected are responsible for articulation, vocabulary and verbal memory through rich dialogue.”
Finding opportunities to connect requires intentional planning and rethinking priorities. Nay recommends shooting for an hour a day as a goal. “Many families are in reactive mode,” said Nay. “They’re caught up in too much of a good thing. Do children have to be involved in activities every day of the week? Maybe the family should decide not to take that vacation to Europe or invest in a boat so it’s possible for Dad to be home more. Decide what’s more important and set boundaries when it comes to everyone’s schedule. You can’t sustain a relationship of importance without spending time together.”
Andrea Beckman, school counselor for Annapolis Elementary, encourages dads to take advantage of short chunks of time to squeeze in conversation. The car ride on the way to school, church or a sporting event is a golden opportunity. “It can be one of the best times to communicate, especially as they begin to reach adolescence because it’s less structured and more natural communication erupts. Since there’s no TV you can make it a no cell phone time too so there are no distractions and you have person to person connection.”
After finding time to spend with your child, the next step is knowing what to say. If your attempts to ask them about their day often end with an abrupt response such as “fine” or “okay,” Nay has a few suggestions to help your child open up. “Ask questions like, ‘tell me one thing that happened at school that surprised you or disappointed you,’ or ‘what did you like most about that field trip today?’ Use phrases like, ‘describe this and how did you do that and what was that like for you?’ As opposed to, ‘got any homework?’ If your child isn’t used to it, then model it back to them by telling them something that surprised you or how you handled something at work and what you enjoyed about your day. Pretty soon you’ll find out a lot about your children.”
Dads on a Mission
There’s a good reason why no one overhears two men on a golf course saying things like, “You know, I just feel so hurt over my son’s rejection. I’m so embarrassed over the lack of true intimacy with my better half.” It’s because women and men communicate differently. “Men task talk,” said Dr. Nay. “We’re socialized very differently as we prefer to discuss facts, events, things of a competitive nature, and talk to solve problems. So dads do a lot better talking ‘in task,’ when they’re engaged in an activity, and with children this could be going for a walk, shooting hoops, or going out for ice cream. Boys are more apt to open up being in relationship around activities, but dads can make a big impression on girls by taking them shopping or help coach their soccer team.”
For toddlers and preschoolers, communication is play. But, as kids grow into adolescence, play time changes. This age of self discovery can be a nightmare if dad doesn’t know how to join them on the journey, but this independence doesn’t have to distance them. “Listen to your child. Observe what she likes, what he’s interested in. What is your teen talking about? Engage them through their interests. If your son is into classic cars, buy a magazine and go through it together or take him to a car show. If your daughter is interested in film or fashion, then spend a little time learning about it. Listening to your child and engaging their interests provides context to relate to them so you’re not wondering what to talk about next,” Nay said.
An often overlooked opportunity for involvement is school activities. Annapolis Elementary School finds ways for dads to strengthen their parental role and boost student success through their “Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students)” program. Every week one student’s dad, grandfather, or male role model participates in activities throughout the day like helping with P.E., making announcements, reading in small groups with their child or playing math games. “The more involved a dad is in their child’s life, the better their relationship will be,” said Beckman. “It’s always great to see dads at PTA meetings, parent teacher conferences, school plays or family nights because it strengthens that relationship and student success as well.”
Harmony at Home
Dads who want to make a lasting impression on their children are more likely to succeed if they find a happy medium between a full schedule and a full life. Reining in obligations, taking advantage of time, and engaging intentional conversations will go a long way in the father-child relationship.
By Mindy Ragan Wood