Whether you’re expecting your first child or preparing to send your youngest off to college, as a father you never stop facing the question, “Just what am I supposed to be doing?” Popular culture sometimes seems to suggest there’s no task for which we dads are particularly well-suited, save bungling simple household repairs, hitting our heads on blunt objects, and embarrassing our children in front of their friends. I, however, refuse to accept these stereotypes! I can embarrass my kids in front of total strangers.
The reality is that today’s fathers not only must master traditional tasks (lawn care, sports instruction, plumbing), but increasingly we function in new roles (changing diapers, baking cookies, kissing boo-boos). Thanks to tectonic cultural and economic shifts, record numbers of fathers now serve the role of primary caregiver for their children, either on a part-time or a full-time basis. A popular tee-shirt in the fathering community reads, “Dads Don’t Babysit.” Not only are television shows like Disney’s Doc McStuffins starting to portray competent stay-at-home dads, but even family courts are getting on board, replacing the term “visitation schedule” with the more-appropriate “parenting plan.”
That’s not to say fathers do exactly what mothers do. Broadly speaking, fathers are more likely than mothers to play actively with their children and to go exploring. We are given to having long, serious talks with our kids, and not just “the talk.” We also tend to focus more on risk-taking and problem-solving. Many dads are surprised to learn that on average discipline styles differ very little between moms and dads. For every family where dad is the disciplinarian there is another where mom is the enforcer.
Fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives matters for many of the outcomes we care most about as parents. Premature babies gain more weight if their dads participate in their care. Breast feeding is more likely to succeed when dad is supportive. Paternal involvement leads children to enjoy improved language skills, better grades, and higher self-esteem. Children with active fathers are even less likely to end up in jail, use drugs and alcohol, or become pregnant in their teens.
By now you’re probably thinking, “This active fathering thing sounds pretty good. How do I get in on it?” First, it helps to have a child. How that happens is beyond the scope of this article. That said, there are lots of men functioning as fathers who fall outside the strictest definition of the word. Stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, foster/adoptive fathers, and same-sex partners may all find themselves functioning as a parent. If any child identifies you as his primary male caregiver then congratulations, you’re a dad!
Just as children grow and develop every day, your job as a father continually evolves. Let’s take a look at different phases of a child’s life and consider some things you can do at each step to stay involved.
- Pregnancy. Learn! Pregnancy marks a huge step in your relationship with your child’s mom, and it’s a good time to demonstrate your support and patience. Show your interest in fathering by taking an active role in setting up a nursery. Read up on pregnancy, attend a course on breast feeding, and go with mom to birthing classes. Take time to talk through your thoughts about child care, including sleep, feeding, discipline, and division of labor between you and mom. You may discover you and mom have different ideas about some of these subjects, and now is a good time to seek out resources to help you agree on a plan. Many pediatricians will meet with prospective parents prior to their babies’ births, either individually or in group sessions.
- The newborn period. Cuddle! Newborn babies benefit from “kangaroo care,” skin-to-skin contact with a parent. This contact helps babies regulate their temperature, heart rate, and breathing. Take turns with mom, bonding with your newborn while she gets some rest, takes a shower, or visits with friends and family. This is also a great time to support nursing, helping mom position the baby, bringing water when she gets thirsty (breast feeding makes mothers very thirsty!), and changing the inevitable mid-feed diaper.
- Early infancy. Diaper! The changing table is actually a great place to gaze into your infant’s eyes, bicycle her legs, and tickle her tummy. Here’s the thing: put down a fresh diaper before you take off the soiled one. Just because your baby just peed or pooped does not in any way mean she’s all done. If you have a girl, wipe front to back, not back to front. Now you know all there is to know about diaper changes.
- Middle infancy. Play! Babies are developing their senses at an incredible rate during this time period, and they are looking for stimulation of all sorts. You can lie down with your baby while he gets “tummy time” to build his neck and back muscles (full disclosure: he may not like tummy time). You can puff air at his face, make big smiles, or hand him age-appropriate toys and see how he responds.
- Later infancy. Interact! This is an age where imitative games help your infant learn to interact with other people. From the most basic head-shaking to more advanced activities like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake, repetition leads to laughter. Also, be ready to pick stuff up. Your baby is learning about the magic of gravity, and he will drop things from his high chair over and over again. I find leaving a basket on the floor helps with this process.
- Toddler period. Talk! A lot. Name everything: “This is your sock. It goes on your foot. Look at your toes!” The more words children hear in a day, the better they learn to talk. See if you can use a minimum of five words every time you tell your toddler something, such as “Put that down, it’s sharp,” instead of, “No!” A backyard safari is a great time to point out new plants, animals, and landscapes.
- Preschool period. Pretend! Preschoolers have vast imaginations, which they use to model how the world works. At age three, your child has very little understanding of the differences between what’s real and what’s make believe, so dive into imaginative play with her, but refrain from telling her tall tales. She’ll take whatever you say to be true, no matter how ridiculous it seems to you. By age four her reality testing will improve, and she will start to guess when you’re being silly. It’s normal at this age for your child to take on opposite-sex roles in play. If your son wants to wear a princess dress, just make sure his heels match.
- Elementary school years. Explore! This is a great time for trips to the park, the zoo, or the museum. Your child is aware he has a lot to learn, and he’ll be a sponge for new experience. Early on, you can flaunt your superior knowledge, but unless you want to feel ignorant avoid the subject of dinosaurs unless you’re a paleontologist.
- Middle school years. Listen! You may feel like your child is pulling away from you, but that makes it all the more important to stay close. You may have a lot to say, but first ask your child questions, hear her answers, and then ask follow-up questions. At this age children are forming more complex ideas of how people relate to each other, including a more nuanced sense of right and wrong. Your questions may do a lot more than your statements to help your child make sense of the world.
- High school years. Talk! Listen! Talk again! Kids this age may feel very adult, but they are still learning to judge risks and make responsible decisions. You’ll need to involve your child in setting expectations and determining consequences when he falls short. Remember that your teen may be working hard to develop his own identity, but he’s still modeling his behavior on yours, and he still cares what you think, no matter what he says.
It’s not like being a father is a job that ever really ends. I still ask my dad for all sorts of advice, like what to do after I bump my head on a blunt object while bungling a simple household repair. Honestly, I already know the answer (apply ice), but like all kids, I still love to know that Dad cares.
Dr. Hill is author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro (American Academy of Pediatrics, June 2012)