6 Things You Could Do Today To Start Being a Better Dad

There is no rulebook for parenting. There’s no list of steps that, if followed properly, lead to fail-proof parental success. Instead, there’s a seemingly-endless stream of advice, a laundry list of “parenting hacks” that read like an ill-advised game of Mad Libs. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as fail-proof parenting. We all experience our share of failures. It’s inevitable. We’ll unleash overflowing frustration on our kids after a long day at work, we’ll forget to embrace the moment because our adult brain is fixated on what’s coming next. We’ll never be perfect, but we can be better. Even with our failures, we can be great.

What makes a great dad? 

We all strive to be great dads. Dads whose children trust and rely on them, building a bond that lasts well past childhood. But how do we get there? Every single day we’re faced with choices, ones that dictate how our children see and interact with us. In order to make those choices, first and foremost, we have to show up. We have to show up consistently, actively, and without judgment. From there, becoming a great dad is a process, one that lasts a lifetime. Your only competition is yourself. Your only goal today is to be a better dad than you were yesterday. How, you ask?

Well…

[1] Just Be a Fan. Just Be a Fan.

Kids receive constant feedback from the world around them. Teachers evaluate their ability to learn, peers evaluate their ability to socialize. Kids are told what’s normal and what’s abnormal, they’re compared to set expectations and held to set standards. At home though, in the one space where kids can be fully and unabashedly themselves, kids don’t need those limitations. They don’t need to be told that their dreams are unrealistic, they don’t need to hear that their favorite TV show sucks. What they need is a fan.

A fan is always there, cheering loudly during the best times and the worst. Kids don’t need you to fight their fights for them, or to tell them what they’re doing wrong. They need someone who’s willing to say “yes, you can” even when they don’t fully believe it themselves. Someone who roots for them no matter what, because nobody else in the world will. Someone who loves them fully and unconditionally, who’s willing to step back and let them make mistakes for the sake of growth and self-discovery. And when they fall, they can feel safe in the confidence that their biggest fan is waiting to help them back up. 

[2] Your Job Is to Bother

As long as doors have existed, teenagers have been slamming them. Kids want independence. They want you to stay out of their business, to stop telling them that you love them in front of their friends. If kids had it their way, parenting wouldn’t be such an all-encompassing task. But our job as parents is to push through those barriers, to let them know we’re there even when they don’t necessarily want us there. 

It’s not a coincidence that father rhymes with bother. That’s our job. To be up in their business.

Being up in their business isn’t the same as being overbearing, and it certainly isn’t permission to stifle their independence. Bothering simply means being involved, showing interest, and reminding them that we care about them unconditionally. Sure, they’ll resist at times. They’ll roll their eyes. They’ll groan. But they will never, no matter how hard life gets, worry that nobody cares. Be a bother to them. Be a father to them.

[3] Start The Conversation

Nearly every coming-of-age TV show references “The Talk,” an idea that bleeds, for better or worse, into real life. The idea of “the talk” is shrouded in mystery and discomfort, hinged on the idea that it’s a parent’s responsibility to tell their children everything there is to know about life’s most difficult topics in a single agonizing chat. 

It’s taken us our entire lives up to this point to learn about drugs. To learn about sex. To learn about loss. And yet, we’re expected to impart all of our worldly knowledge in a movie-worthy montage filled with awkward muttering and not-so-subtle glances at the clock? At best, it’s deeply inadequate.

Parenting is an ongoing process, it’s a job that never ends. These talks, like many aspects of parenting, should evolve as our kids grow. They should become deeper and more involved as our kids become more deeply involved in the world around them. It may be uncomfortable at first, partly because it means our kids are no longer seeing the world with wide-eyed innocence. 

But these talks are essential. They mark the beginning of conversations that will last a lifetime, conversations that our children will one day have with their own kids. Start the conversation now, start it right, and make sure to keep it going. 

[4] Leave It at the Door

All day at work, we face seemingly-endless demands. We feel perpetually behind. We’re surrounded by people experiencing a host of emotions, each one seeping into our own psyche and influencing our mood without our consent. Our phones and computers notify us constantly of things we need to see, hear, do, and acknowledge, moving so quickly that no human brain can or should possibly keep up. 

By the time we get home, we’re understandably drained. We’re depleted by the demands that greeted us at every turn, returning to our families with a choice. We can track our irritability in with us, filling our homes with impatience and giving our kids the scraps of what little energy we have left. Or, we can leave it all at the door. 

It’s our responsibility as dads to act as protectors of our homes. It’s our duty to protect them not only from external threats, but from internal ones. As we return home each day, we must act as emotional bouncers. We must actively choose to leave the stress of a difficult meeting outside. The mental toll of our short-tempered boss is not on the guest list. 

Our front door is a checkpoint, a reminder to bring only the important things inside. We wipe our feet and wash our hands of the things that hinder our ability to be present. We have to be ready to fully engage with our kids, offering them more than the muddied remains of a difficult day. We have to be the dads our kids deserve.

[5] Don’t Hurry Them Along

We’re going to be late. We don’t have time for this. We have to go. There’s a rough outline of everything that needs to get done in a single day, and taking too long on any one task throws the whole thing off. The adult mind, filled with schedules and obligations, pulls us from the present. We don’t have time for curiosity. We don’t have the energy to stop and look, really look, at the same tree we’ve passed hundreds of times. We have to keep going.

The entrepreneur Derek Sivers has talked about how hard he works to override these instincts. The truth of the matter is, most of our rushing is done out of habit. Very little is actually so urgent that it can’t wait a few minutes, yet we tell our kids to put their activities aside, to align with our self-imposed need to rush. 

Curiosity in the world around you is a fire that needs to be stoked. If we continue throwing water on the coals of our children’s curiosity, eventually, we’ll smother it completely. Being a few minutes late to basketball practice isn’t a big deal, but telling our children that there’s no time to be fully alive and engaged in the world around them certainly is. 

Whether it’s sitting on the sidewalk counting the number of ants that emerge from an anthill, or drawing the same dog for the 45th time because it’s just not right yet — your child is exactly where they need to be at that moment. You are exactly where you need to be.

[6] An Important Rule: If your child offers you a hand to hold, take it

Throughout their lives, we extend countless hands to our children. We extend our hands literally, guiding them across the street or keeping them safe by our side in a crowded mall. We also extend metaphorical hands; helping, teaching, and guiding wherever we can. Kids learn to extend their own hands as well, reaching out when they need safety and reassurance. No matter what, we must take them.  

As our kids grow up, our extended hands are increasingly met with resistance. They don’t need help. Holding your hand is childish. They want to do it alone. It’s painful at times, feeling unneeded and unwanted as our kids dig in their heels in pursuit of independence. It’s inevitable though, a natural part of growing up that we begrudgingly accept. It’s out of our control. 

What’s within our control, however, is how we respond when our children reach out. When they wake up from a nightmare and want to lay with us, we have to scoot over. When they call, even if it’s just to hear the voice that’s reassured them so many times in the past, we have to answer. We have to show them that their words will never fall on deaf ears. To remind them that when they reach out their hand, ours will be there to meet it. When our children need us, they must never question whether or not we’ll be there.

***

There’s no such thing as a perfect dad, no rubric for parenting that tells us where we need improvement. It’s just not that simple. Every parent, child, and situation is massively different in important, game-changing ways. As parents, we can only strive to do better than we did yesterday. We can strive to show up every single day, with open arms and an open heart. We can strive to support our kids better, communicate better, love them for exactly who they are as they grow into the best versions of themselves. And, in doing so, we can become the best versions of ourselves.

For more tips and musings on the wild road that is fatherhood, check out our free daily email list at dailydad.com.

Bonus—5 Quotes on Being a Better Dad:

“Ok, the key to being a good dad. Look, sometimes things work out just the way you want. Sometimes they don’t. You gotta hang in there. Because when all is said and done, 90% of being a dad is just showing up.” — Jay, Modern Family

 

“I think that the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to do things for themselves, allow them to be strong, allow them to experience life on their own terms, allow them to take the subway… let them be better people, let them believe more in themselves.” — C. JoyBell C.

 

“The best way of training the young is to train yourself at the same time; not to admonish them, but to be seen never doing that of which you would admonish them.” — Plato

 

“Children need models rather than critics.” — Joseph Joubert 

 

“Mostly you just have to keep plugging and keep loving—and hoping that your child forgives you according to how you loved him, judged him, forgave him, and stood watching over him as he slept, year after year.” — Ben Stein

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