Niels Bohr said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.” If that quotation is true, I must be getting pretty close to being an expert father by now. Hopefully though, I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made. The mark of a good leader and a good father is just that—the ability to learn from mistakes. The man who doesn’t is doomed to repeat them over and over again. The following areas are some tips about fathering that I’ve discovered over the years. I list these not because I’ve perfected these areas, but because I finally recognize them for how important they really are.
Tip #1 – Emphasize Strengths not Weaknesses
As a father I have a tendency to focus on the things my children do wrong instead of the things they do right. But as a coach I tell my players to focus on their strengths not their weaknesses. Help find your son's and daughter’s strengths--their gifts from God. Focus on those instead of being overly critical of their weaknesses.
Tip #2 – Give Plenty of Physical Affection
As men we are raised to be uncomfortable with too much affection from another male—especially the physical kind. It’s interesting that we compensate for that by knocking each other all around the football field, wrestling mat, or boxing ring. For some reason we think it’s okay to slap another man on the butt during the heat of athletic competition, but we’re uncomfortable hugging one another in greeting. As physical as the male animal is, you’d think we would be more comfortable expressing physical affection. But I think it must be a social taboo ingrained into our unconsciousness at an early age. Hug and kiss your kids—even your son. Give them plenty of physical love. Even as they get older, continue to show them physical affection.
Tip #3 – Give Them Your Time
It’s almost a cliché to quote the song by Harry Chapin, “Cats in the Cradle,” to illustrate the consequences of a father being too absorbed in his work when his son is young. The reality is that most of us men are given the vision that in order to be a success in life we must be successful in our work—that our career is more important than anything else in life. Oh, we give lip service to the importance of our families, but our actions often speak louder than our words. Time is the most valuable, and the most limited, resource we have to give to our children. Your kids need your time more than they need your money—just ask any fatherless child.
Tip # 4 – Heart over Performance
Too often, I have a tendency to judge my children's efforts by their performance. The reality is that an individual can do his personal best in an area in which he is not gifted, and still fall short of average performance. Likewise, a person can be gifted and do well in an area while applying very little effort. Which scenario should they be applauded most for?
Tip # 5 - Have Fun
It's so easy to get caught up in the complexities and stresses of everyday life. This is especially true for those who take responsibilities seriously. But part of a dad's charm is his ability to have fun. Let yourself go and remember the all the goofy things that make life worth living. Have fun with your children while they’re still little. Take some time to just goof-off. There will be plenty of time to be serious and somber. One of the things kids appreciate most about their fathers is his sense of humor. When Dad has life under control, he values the humorous side of life and shows it to his kids.
Tip # 6 – Don’t Fear Failure
I spent much of my life avoiding anything I wasn’t perfect at because I was afraid to fail. This has caused me to have a number of regrets. The regrets I have in life are mostly of things I didn't do--not what I did do. Oh, I regret some things I've done over the years (I've done many things I'm not proud of), but I don’t regret my sins of commission like I do my sins of omission. Missed opportunities, an apathetic attitude, and not seeking significance were all choices I made which I regret deeply. I was raised to believe that failure was the worst thing of all. But it's not. I've come to understand that true failure is never reaching out to attempt something great, to try and reach your full potential. You only fail when you don’t try. I regret all the times I was impatient with my children and never gave them the attention they deserved. I’ve told my son many times that I needed him to know that whatever mistakes I made as a dad--and I made many--those mistakes were my problem; they were never anything to do with him. He deserved more love and better fathering than I was capable of giving him.
Tip # 7 – Understand Your Power
Several years ago, during a rare bout of brutal self-honesty, I discovered that I treated my employees better than I did my wife and children. I heard myself saying things to my family I would never say to my employees. If another man had made those kinds of statements to my wife or kids, I would have physically confronted him. Why did I feel free to verbally wound those I treasure more than anything else in the world with words that I would never dream of saying to a stranger? God has given us men great power that can be used for good or evil. Just look around at some of the problems men have created in other peoples’ lives. Then look at some of the great things men have accomplished to benefit others. It’s an awesome power. But with that comes the need to understand it and use it responsibly. Former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld said, “Only he deserves power who every day justifies it.”
Tip # 8 – Develop Friendships
Most men in our country have acquaintances, but no real friends. The pressures and time constraints of work and supporting a family often take away the opportunity to build masculine relationships. But to be the best father possible, you need other men in your life to hold you accountable and to lift you up during difficult times. Another man’s experiences are invaluable when we try to navigate some of the uncharted waters of fathering.
Isolation is death to a man’s character. Perhaps that’s why our culture, seemingly bent on the destruction of positive masculinity, continues to promote the rugged individualist as the model for men to look up to. The Marlboro Man, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, and James Bond—our celluloid heroes—never needed any help from other men. They just sucked it up and overcame whatever problems popped up. Then they rode off into the sunset by themselves.
But real men need other men. We need the accountability, comradeship, support, and yes, gasp, help, that other men can provide.
Tip #9 – Be Consistent
Being consistent is one of the strongest traits a man can bring to fathering. Kids rely on you to be consistent in your responses no matter the circumstances. They rely on you being dependable, a rock in the face of adversity. When life throws a curve ball, they need Dad to be there to tell them it’s okay. Think about how scared you would be if the leader you were following--maybe someone you thought was strong or even invincible--were to suddenly become very frightened or to exhibit erratic, out-of-control behavior during a stressful situation. Would you want to follow that person again? I wouldn’t. Your emotional stability, especially in stressful situations, provides your kids with the security they need in order to grow into a healthy man or woman. You can’t keep stressful situations from happening, but you can control how you react to them. Teach your kids that a man keeps his head while others around him lose theirs.
Tip #10 – Overcome Complacency & Passivity
In the movie Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist during World War II. In an effort to capitalize on the war he acquired a factory in Poland which he ran with the cheapest labor around—Jewish labor.
At first he seemed like every other greedy German industrialist, driven by profit and unmoved by the means of his profiteering. But somewhere along the line, something changed. He succeeded in his quest for riches, but by the end of the war he had spent everything he made on keeping 1,100 Jewish men and women alive. He literally bought their lives by having them work in his factory.
In a powerful scene at the end of the movie, with Allied forces bearing down, Schindler said goodbye to the many Jewish factory workers he had saved. The workers had previously removed some of their gold-filled teeth to create a ring for Schindler. Inside the ring they engraved an old Hebrew proverb, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
As they gave him the ring in gratitude, Schindler fell to his knees and began sobbing in remorse. He deeply regretted that he had not done more to save additional lives. Even when the workers tried to console him that he had done so much more than anyone else, he cried out in agony over regret at his complacency. “I could have got more out. If I’d just…I didn’t do enough,” he sobbed. “I could have gotten one more person—and I didn’t…I didn’t!”
Shindler, while certainly not as complacent as many of us, realized too late that he could have done so much more. He regretted it dearly. And while others did not blame him, he knew in his heart that he could have done more.
When my time comes I do not want to be a man on my knees before God with my face in my hands sobbing with regret over the fact that I did not use the gifts that God gave me to make a difference in other people’s lives—especially my own children’s. I don’t want those regrets and I don’t want you to have those regrets either. Use the power God has given you to make a difference in the world—before it’s too late. Your kids will be proud of you for it!