Cultivating the Fine Art of Good Fathering

When Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency on August 9, 1974, he gave a farewell speech to his White House staff. During that speech, which came at a time of great personal crisis for the president, Nixon remembered his father. After describing his father’s series of career failures as a streetcar motorman, farmer, rancher, and grocer, Nixon declared: “But he was a great man.”

And when actress Anjelica Huston was asked about her father, film director John Huston, she said: “I remember being at a point below his knees and looking up at the vast length of him. He was six feet three; his voice was big. He was devastat-ingly attractive. His voice was so beautiful, so enveloping. He was just bigger and better than anyone else.”

Those comments by a former president and an actress reveal that fathers are very important to children. Whether a father becomes successful or not, he is still a “great” man to his child and “bigger and better than anyone else.” For a child a father is a combination of hero, guide, mentor, protector, teacher, and friend. A father is someone who loves, dispenses discipline, hands down material and moral legacies, and shapes a child’s worldview. “One father is worth more than a hundred schoolmasters,” noted British poet George Herbert.

Increasingly, men are recognizing their vital role in the family and are responding positively to the challenge of parenting. More and more men are acting on a deep hunger to create meaningful relationships with their children. Here are ways to cultivate the fine art of good fathering.

Understand the importance of the father role. Although much past psychological research was devoted to investigating a mother’s impact, new research reveals that a positive and active involvement by the father results in children who are better adjusted socially, experience healthier sexual development, and undergo greater intellectual growth.

“Everything we know shows that when men are involved with their children, the children’s IQ increases by the time they are 6 or 7,” says pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. He points out that with the father’s involvement “the child is also more likely to have a sense of humor, to develop a sort of inner excitement, to believe in himself or herself, to be more motivated to learn.”

On the other hand, a father’s emotional distance can have a profound negative impact. Dr. Louise B. Silverstein of New York University says: “Research clearly documents the direct correlation between a father’s absence and higher rates of aggressive behavior in sons, sexually precocious behavior in daughters, and more rigid sex stereotypes in children of both sexes.”

Commit to being a major player. Fewer and fewer fathers are content to play minor roles in raising their children. Cultivating the fine art of good fathering means making the commitment to be deeply and passionately involved in the lives of your children. That means many things including: helping with homework, attending parent-teacher conferences, playing games, spending one-on-one time with each child, and generally increasing hours spent at home.

Don’t let materialism erode relationships. Although working hard in order to provide for family is important, every father should avoid the seduction of material success that interferes and prevents strong bonds from being forged with children. Good fathers will take seriously the warning of scripture: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10, NIV).*

Child psychologist Lee Salk says: “The material success of parents can be a detriment to child-raising if it comes at the expense of time that should be spent with their children. Children can tell fairly young what their parents consider important. If they see everything comes ahead of them, there is likely to be trouble ahead.” Wise fathers know that relationships, not material things, bring satisfaction in life.

Know your children.
A key difference that separates effective fathers from all other fathers is that they really know their children. Effective fathers know what hurts and haunts their children, as well as what brings them joy and pleasure. These fathers know what makes their children different from every other child in the neighborhood. They are aware of the various shades, colors, and hues of their children’s personalities. Ken R. Canfield, author of The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers, surveyed 4,000 men to determine what contributes to effective fathering. As a result of his studies he discovered that a good father knew the following specifics about his children:

  • when his child had a difficult day

  • when his child was upset about something
  • the names of his child’s best friends
  • what encouraged his child the most
  • when he had hurt his child’s feelings
  • his child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • what motivated his child
  • when his child was embarrassed
  • most of his child’s recent disappointing experiences

Parent by the three L’s.
Good fathers look, listen, and learn. They are always on the lookout for healthy role models. They listen to other successful parents, seeking to learn from them better and more effective ways to father their own children. “Effective fathers know they need support and aren’t afraid to ask for it,” says Paul Lewis, author of The Five Key Habits of Smart Dads. “They talk to other fathers and perhaps choose one as a model or mentor.”

Be your child’s hero.
“Parents are the pride of their children,” declares the writer of Proverbs 17:6 (NIV). Good fathers emerge as their child’s hero. That happens when fathers consistently role model the virtues of integrity, compassion, sacrifice, hard work, discipline, love, and faithfulness in the discharge of duties. Too many fathers have unwittingly allowed someone else to become their child’s hero.

J. C. Watts, Jr., a U.S. congressman from Oklahoma, is one whose father was a positive role model. “My father was and is my hero,” he says. “From the day I was born until I left for college, my father always held at least three jobs. He was a policeman, a minister and a landlord. Through hard work, he provided food, clothes and a decent house to live in. He never made excuses; he never looked to politicians to take care of his family. He trusted hard work.”

In the final analysis, good fathering is an investment in the future. Today’s fathers are raising the leaders of the twenty-first century. All of the affection, teaching, encouragement, discipline, and role modeling a father gives to his children will bear fruit in the form of adults who are emotionally healthy, well-adjusted, and contributing to the common good.

* Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.