Two weeks back we had our annual Simpson Lectures at Acadia Divinity College. This particular lectureship was more intense and demanding than past events, which resulted in me being very busy from Monday to Wednesday. I saw my children for a few minutes in the morning, and about 15 minutes for each supper time. I really don't like being away that much. And neither do my kids.
It was driven home to me by my oldest son Lex. Lex is an introvert and a homebody. He likes being home. He likes to play on his own. His ideal day is laying on the couch under a blanket reading a good novel, uninterrupted. He is quite often in his own little world. He sometimes can forget to even say hello or good morning. I sometimes wonder if Lex forgets that there are others in the room with him.
So I was struck once again as I quickly picked him up from his after-school lego club to drop him off when he asked me:
"Are you working again tonight?"
"Yes buddy, I'll be gone."
"Is there something you needed help with or needed to talk about?"
"No, I just like it when you're home."
That was the end of the conversation (we are boys after all). But that has stuck with me. I mentioned it to my wife Maria and she said very simply "all the kids feel that way. They like you home." It reminded me of a story I read in Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker. She talks about her own experience with an introverted father, but how she was grounded, safe, secure, and felt loved simply by his consistent presence. They wouldn't talk a lot, but they were together a lot.
Fathers Just Need To Be There
This small encounter with Lex reminded me anew that fathers just need to be there. There are many kids in single-parent homes being raised by just mom (single-moms, you are rockstars!). If dad is in the picture at all, it is sporadic and with no consistency. But there is also a second reality: traditional two-parent families with a dad that is rarely home when he easily could be.
Now, I'm not talking about men who do shift work, or who have a hobby or sport they participate in once a week. I'm talking about men who could be home, but aren't. They are doing things they enjoy, but doing them 4 nights a week. Or perhaps it is hanging out with friends after work for a lot longer than they need to. Perhaps you are having difficulty in your marriage, and so are just avoiding your spouse at the time. Or perhaps you feel inadequate as a parent or dad. You had an idea of what fatherhood was supposed to look like, but your wife does it better than you and you feel a little like a fish out of water.
Whatever your reason might be, you aren't home as much as you could be. Fellow dads, you need to understand - you're kids just need you to be there. I'm often reminded by my wife who jokes about my snoring, but tells me that her father snored. And from her bedroom she could hear him night after night, and it was comforting. You're mere presence at home on a consistent basis (whatever consistency means in your context) is a source of comfort and safety for your children. They want to know that you are there if they need you.
You're Doing Good
Let me encourage you, that if you indeed are home consistently, you are doing good. In fact, you are doing better than many fathers and your children are lucky to have a consistent father in their lives like you.
You may say, though, something that I often say to myself: "when I am home, I'm so busy. There is always something that needs fixing. There are always little tasks to do. There is always chores to be done." Please know, if you feel that way, you are not alone. But please know this too — in the minds and hearts of your children, you are home. They are safe. They feel comfortable. They know you are near and you will drop everything if they urgently need you. This is the gift of presence that so many kids desperately need and that you are providing for your family.
You And I Can Do Better
But you can continue to improve too — to not only be present but also to be engaged. Let me suggest several ways that you can be even more present for your kids:
- Plan a date with your kids. This may be a monthly, quarterly, bi-annual, or annual thing, depending on your time, resources, and amount of kids. I'm at about a quarterly schedule. This can be as big as going to a movie or hockey game, or as simple as going for a hot chocolate and donut. Your kids will love it. (BUT, this is second in priority to going on dates with your wife).
- Get them to help. If you are fixing things or doing outdoor chores, get them to help. I try and be especially conscious of this if I can introduce them to a new skill or a new tool. I know it is faster and easier to do it on your own, but these are opportunities to pass skills on to your kids and spend time with them.
- Wake them up with a book. A few weeks ago I had a (bitter) realization that I had not been reading enough to my youngest daughter. My two oldest boys were close in age and I read to them all of the time when they were young. But as they grew up, we all together ended up reading bigger chapter books. I had one of those hard-to-swallow moments when I realized that I had neglected reading picture books with my daughter - I have missed out on something precious that I can't fully get back. It is something I can never get back, but I can try my best now to make up for it. So for the past month (and I'm not planning on stopping any time soon) I have waken my youngest up 5-10 minutes earlier than normal to read her a book. Did this make a difference? My valentine from her last week said "I love my daddy because he reads to me." Now, I'm not sure I'll ever stop this morning routine :-) (p.s. this means YOU need to wake up a little earlier too so that you don't throw the morning out of balance)
- Be engaged. My wife's biggest (legitimate) critique of me is that I'm too often looking at my computer, iPad, or iPhone. This is a big struggle for many people. But you can do better. Make a conscious effort to put your devices somewhere they won't be distracting you so that you can be not only present, but also engaged with those around you.
- Ask for highs and lows. If you're introverted or struggle to come up with conversation, just ask them each day what the best part of their day was, and what the worst part was, and talk about those. (for more dinner time tips, see my post on the topic) And if you desire even more conversation starters, Focus on the Family made an app for that!
- Linger at bedtime. This is the tip that I most need to work on in my own life right now. My wife is great at this. You will be amazed how much kids want to talk about when they are supposed to go to bed :-) While this can sometimes get to be an annoyance, some quick retooling can make this a great connecting time. First, just work a little harder to get them to bed 5 minutes earlier. But once you do tuck them in, instead of trying to cut off their conversation by trying to leave, kneel down beside their bed to talk with them for a few minutes. It doesn't have to be every night, and again there are always other constraints (like having more than one kid). But even if you try and do it once a week, or once a month, it is an additional connection time.
- Tell them you love them. I tell every one of my kids I love them at least once a day. No matter how little you may see them on a given day, no matter how angry you might be with them, no matter how much you bottle your feelings up, and no matter how introverted you might be: look them right in the eyes and tell them you love them once a day. And accompany it with a hug, high five, or fist bump.
Fellow dads, you and I have the honor and privilege of being one of the primary influences in the life of our kids. Your mere presence is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Keep up the good work of being present, and continually challenge yourself to do even better. Your kids are worth it.