David Coleman: As a father, my children are learning from my actions
As dads are celebrated all around the world next Sunday for Father's Day, clinical psychologist David Coleman outlines the importance of the role of a father figure in shaping children's lives and future relationships
Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30
I'm a father. Instinctively, I know I am important to my children. But what exactly is it that I, and other fathers, do that makes us so important? I've carried babies in a sling, letting them snuggle into me to sleep. I've bathed them, fed them and changed the dirty nappies.
I've trailed after two-year-olds who just want to explore everything and I've cleaned up the spills and the scraped knees as pre-schoolers try to do it all. I've read to them, exhaustively, to the point I could almost recite some books.
I've watched three children move through primary school, navigating friends, teachers, class plays and school trips. I've driven to teenage discos, negotiated social media, talked about sex, drugs and alcohol, and supported my kids through State exams.
The only bit of fathering I have yet to try is the adult-to-adult friendship that I hope blooms in the next five to 10 years, as they move out of the house and fully into their own futures.
Like any good psychologist, I've read the research. I know there is strong evidence that having fathers who are around and active in their children's lives is good for their children.
For example, a number of research studies suggest that fathers who are involved, nurturing and playful with their infants, have children with higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and cognitive capacities.
The evidence also shows that toddlers with involved fathers have higher levels of academic readiness and seem to handle the stress and frustrations of schooling better than children with less-involved fathers.
By the time children get to adolescence, an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning and academic achievement.
Socially and emotionally children do better when they have a father who is involved in their lives. The research shows that children with fathers who are actively interested in them get on better with friends and are less likely to be in trouble at home or in school.
The way in which fathers interact with their children, which tends to be physical and playful, gives children the skills to regulate their feelings and behaviour.
It seems that fathers are more likely to promote independence and an orientation to the outside world. Fathers tend to push achievement, which balances with the way mothers tend to place more importance on nurturing.
Taking all of the research, then, fathers have an undoubtedly positive and powerful impact on the healthy and balanced development of their children.
I'd like to think that my children will accrue all of these benefits. I'd like to think that I have been a 'good enough' father. Knowing the research is one thing, but being a dad doesn't feel like something that can be 'done by the book'.
When I think about the things I have done, though, that make me good enough, there is no stand-out factor, no single critical ingredient that has been the key.
Rather, I think it is the quality of the relationships that I have built up with them, over the years. So, all of those things that I mentioned at the start of the article have been important.
The hours walking around the house with one or other baby in my arms, the times running after their bikes as they learned to ride, the times we play-wrestled on the bed, the movies we watched together snuggled up, the hours spent on the sidelines, or court-side, as they did their thing with their team-mates.
But, aside from the fun times, I also know that I have set strict limits, firm boundaries and consistent rules for them. Like I always preach, I have tried to impose those rules fairly and kindly. I try not to lose the head too often.
I push my children when it comes to education, as I really do believe that it will create opportunities for them in their lives. I know that so much of what my children have learned about how to interact with others, and about what a man is, has come from their observation of me.
Research shows that girls, as they grow up, will look for men who hold similar interpersonal characteristics as their father. It is almost as if they have learned how to handle those personality traits in their dad and so think they can handle them in other relationships.
Boys look for their father's approval in everything they do, and try to emulate what they see to be familiar and successful behaviours. In practice they copy the good and the bad, so it is better for them if the behaviour we display is mostly good.
So, even when I am not interacting with them directly, but am on the phone, or with my friends, they are learning from my actions. So I have to try to live the values that I preach to them.
My relationship with my wife is especially important as a model for my children. The levels of respect, love and kindness that I show my wife give my children a guide to how to relate to others, and what they can expect from other men in their relationships with women.
How effectively or not I deal with conflict in my close and intimate relationships also gives them a script for how they can try to resolve problems too.
I, like you, only get this one chance to influence them so powerfully. I really hadn't a clue, when I started this fathering business, just how precious an experience it would be to watch and nurture my children as they grew.
We fathers are important people. Children need us if they are to grow and thrive in a balanced, healthy way. They need to see us, touch us, play with us and talk with us.
To achieve that we have to be present and we have to give them our time.
I love my children and I hope that is what shows in how I am with them… most of the time!
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