Each year more information points to the connection between father involvement and positive developmental outcomes for children. Being present and parenting in a proactive way affect all domains of children’s well-being. Fathers play a unique role in their child’s life and, as times change and roles evolve, new challenges arise.
Parenting, in general, has never been more demanding with the proliferation of choices, technology, and the loss of many family and community protective factors. While wanting the best for our families is at the forefront of our thinking, three important aspects of development will help fathers engage this vision from inside out.
1. Developing as a Parent
Parenting roles continue to evolve, and many fathers take a more active role in raising children. And research on parenting styles clarifies the need for fathers to be both supportive and demanding. Relationships require consistent attention and having rituals that build the parent-child bond are crucial. Trust, autonomy, and initiative all develop within this bond and the responsive current of connection.
Also, proactive parenting means discipline is about teaching rather than punishment. Fathers can make a significant impact by focusing on the principles of authoritative parenting. This encompasses teaching what you want your children to be able to know and to do rather than focusing on managing negative behaviors.
A wealth of information points to the benefits of fathers being warm and responsive while also providing consistent structure, choices, and limits. Children are better regulated, socially adept, and more able to solve problems when fathers take a balanced approach. But this authoritative style must evolve as children develop and requires fathers to adapt in the process. Understanding children’s needs within the framework of development is critical to healthy father-child connection and providing stability through transitions.
In summary, certain principles of parenting weave through each stage of childhood. Yet as children develop fathers must adapt to the challenges of the current stage which brings new tasks for both child and father.
2. Developing as an Adult
The stages of child development are well-documented. Less attention has been paid to stages of adult development, often presented as a one-size fits all from post-adolescence onward. A profound reason is that at some point adult development is optional and requires a proactive choice, one based in vision and potential. Fathers can choose this developmental arc, one that enriches experience and broadens knowledge and abilities in the role.
This path of self-development deepens and raises awareness of self, relationships, and how the world works. Adults who engage this process are reflective about their experiences and proactively consider goals, personal growth, and deepening relationships. In becoming more aware and able, we can see others more clearly. And this developmental space allows us to truly see our children, their needs and unique gifts, rather than be enmeshed in their story.
While this process is complex, it is noteworthy that there is only a small correlation between age and stages of adult development. In fact, most adults do not develop to the point of reflecting on roles such as fatherhood, what they have learned from their experience of being fathered, and society’s embedded parenting values.
The developmental path requires fathers to consider these aspects and take a more self-authoring role based in self-identified values. While this concept is simplified, development proceeds in complexity in the intrapersonal and interpersonal realms, centered on our way of knowing (cognitive) and meaning-making (social-emotional). Generally, adults mature in a progression:
- Self-centered to…
- Relationship and role-centered to…
- Self-authoring and value-centered to…
Developing as an adult is an ongoing process of reflection and adaptation. In becoming more self-aware, we meet life’s challenges in more capable ways and from the inside-out. With self-development, fathers are better able to meet children where they are on their own evolving path.
3. Making Sense of Our Story
What we’ve learned from research on attachment and development is that we weave our life stories based in meaning. A wise saying offers that the best thing we can give our children is roots and wings. But we must be aware of our own roots first. Making sense of our childhood and our experience of being parented is a powerful predictor of our ability to parent.
Reflecting on these formative years helps fathers to be present and confident in the moment. What we haven’t made sense of tends to intrude on the present and meddles in father-child interactions in emotionally charged forms or in disconnection (you might even find yourself using your parents’ exact phrases or ultimatums). Importantly, having a clear personal narrative frees us to father regardless of our past. No childhood is perfect — even if our memories have idyllic scenes. The continuum of experiences from fond memories to troubling times become clearer under the light of reflection and meaning-making. And we can learn and makes sense of supportive or adverse experiences freeing us to choose who we want to be as a father in the moment.
In summary, these three developmental paths require fathers to step back and consider how their own growth, vision, and early experiences influence the parent-child relationship. In engaging these developmental challenges, fathers can provide the open and rich space for their children to be and grow. While these three paths are challenging, the effort is a worthy investment in self, fatherhood, and family.