Ever since the first few minutes after my first child was born, one of my most important life's missions has been to be a successful father. And now, 33 years later since that late February night, I think I have learned a few key principles of effective fatherhood.
While practices help us learn the how's of successful fatherhood, principles provide the framework for our fathering. Principles are the underlying philosophy, the way we think about our important role.
And we way we think and feel about fatherhood frames our behavior, our responses and our attitudes.
The Emotional Bank Account
Dr. Stephen Covey, one of the professors in my graduate school program many years ago and now one of the most influential leadership gurus in the world, taught me the principle of the Emotional Bank Account before I was ever a father. The basics of the emotional bank account involve making deposits of trust and faith in the lives of our children. The emotional bank account is about communication, love, loyalty and integrity.
The Most Important Gift is Time
We can give our children things that money can buy: video games, iPod's, designer clothes and the hottest mountain bike. But nothing substitutes for our time and attention. Every father struggles with keeping work, self and family in balance; some seem to be able to strike that balance and avoid challenges like workaholism.
We have also found that not all time is equal. There is a difference between quality time and quantity time. But my experience suggests that it is tough to have quality time without enough quantity.
We teach it by example by keeping our commitments, by putting family first and by enduring hard times. We also teach by giving children stewardship and demanding accountability, whether it is with chores, school work or other aspects of their young lives. Helping children learn to be responsible as children and later as adults is among our most critical roles.
Use your Golden Sword
Family relationship expert Gary Smalley teaches the analogy of the two swords. The silver sword reflects our positional power, of the power we use in our workday world. The golden sword is the sword of personal power, that works best at home. Trying to use positional power with the children is dangerous and often has unintended negative results. But using the gold sword of personal power, described with words like "warmth, sensitivity, dependability, determination, genuine compassion, affection, and caring" has great application at home. So take off the silver sword and strap on the golden sword when you walk through the front door at home.
Walk the Talk
A father who is a "Do as I say, not as I do" kind of dad will never have the respect of his children, or anyone else for that matter. Walking the talk — being what you want your children to be--is a symbol of integrity.
But it requires personal discipline and sacrifice. Being a man of principle and living congruently with those principles is an essential element of successful fatherhood.
Fathers are best when their approach is predictable and consistent. Children get a strong message when fathers are firm and solid in their approach. Being a "marshmallow" with your children is easier, but it hurts them in the long run. Being fair and consistent in discipline is important. When a father makes a rule, it should be enforced. Limits that are set and then moved are not limits at all, with either a child or with a parent.
Successful fathers set high but realistic expectations for themselves and for their children. And then they work together to achieve those expectations. They read together so that they learn how to learn.
They work together to achieve important ends. And they celebrate their accomplishments and learn from their mistakes.
Expressions of Love
Fathers who have great relationships with their children have learned to express love in meaningful ways. They tailor their expressions to the way each child receives love. They are gentle but firm even when disciplining, and then show afterward an increase in love. They find little ways to express love, and they do it every day when the kids are living at home.
When a father shows respect for his children and others, they are more likely to respect him. Keeping expectations clear, being even handed and level headed, and respecting children's self-worth all help breed an atmosphere of mutual respect. And when a father respects their child's mother, regardless of whether they are married or divorced, children learn to respect him more completely.
Making Values Count
It is not enough for a father to teach behavior; successful fathers also teach values. They have a rich spiritual life (however they define that) and connect to nature and timeless values. They respect womanhood, they are honest, the live by standards of moral integrity. Great fathers help pass on these values to their children rather than leaving them valueless in a world where values seem to shift with the sands of time.