The importance of fathers

By Rich Batten, September, 2006
Colorado State University Extension
Family and Consumer Science agent, Douglas County

One evening, author Neil Gaimon's son was angry. Neil had said one of those things that parents say, like "isn't it time you were in bed." His son looked up at him, furious, and said, "I wish I didn't have a dad! I wish I had . . ." and then he stopped and thought, trying to think of what he would have instead of a father. Finally he said, "I wish I had a goldfish!" That conversation gave birth to Gaimon's book, "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish." Superbly illustrated by Dave McKean, the book is a hilarious adventure of a son searching for the dad he swapped. The story line takes the son from friend to a friend of a friend to a friend . . . as they each swap his dad for something more interesting! This particular father reads his newspaper throughout the entire escapade.

Whether they realize it or not, fathers play an important role in their children's development. Roland Warren, Director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, says that, "Kids have a hole in their soul the shape of their dads. They have this tremendous desire to connect-it's in there, it's part of who they are." Kyle Pruett, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, believes "Men are the single greatest untapped resource in the lives of American Children." I agree. We currently live in the best of times and the worst of times for fatherhood. We live in the best of times because fathers who are engaged in their child's life spend more time than fathers of any previous generation. We live in the worst of times because millions of children continue to miss the regular presence of Dad.

What difference does a dad make? Are they really that important? For the most part, studies have consistently demonstrated that fathers-whether they live with their children or not, matter in the lives of their children. When fathers are present, they provide economic support for their children and assume emotional and caregiving responsibilities. Well-fathered children are shown to be more emotionally intelligent and socially successful as adults. When fathers are absent, their absence may negatively impact children's academic achievement, gender-specific development, general behavioral adjustment and anger management, especially in males.

Yet just being physically present isn't enough to be a great father. It is critical that a dad be warm and emotionally available to his child. Author and researcher, John Gottman, describes this kind of father as an "emotion coaching father." Emotion Coaches are parents who listen to their children's feelings, see the sharing of feelings as an opportunity for intimacy, and validate their children's emotions. The Gottman group found that some dads are terrific for their kids and some dads are awful for them. It is not just the mere presence and availability of fathers that matters, but exactly how they are present.

The following tips, developed by the Gottman group, will help fathers and mothers become better emotion coaches.

Helpful Dads Harmful Dads
1. Notice lower intensity emotions in children. 1. Unaware of kids' emotions until they escalate.
2. See these emotions as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching. 2. See these negative emotions as toxic and a failure of parenting.
3. Validate and empathize with emotions, even if there is misbehavior. 3. Try to change the emotion to a positive one, or dismiss the emotion.
4. Help your child verbally label all the emotions he or she is feeling. 4. See introspection as a waste of time or dangerous.
5. Set limits on misbehavior or problem solve if there is no misbehavior. 5. Disapproval of your child having negative emotions.

Gottman's work suggests two important connections for both dads and moms. First, a parent's attitude toward emotions can have a big impact on the way children learn to cope with feelings. Second, children whose parents respond to their emotions with patience and empathy do better in lots of ways, including academic achievement, better overall health, and stronger friendships, among other things.

While children may not always recognize the importance dad plays in their lives, most children long for and need a loving, involved and responsible father or father-figure. It is far more important to be emotionally engaged in the life of your child than, say the newspaper, your hobby or even your job . . . if for no other reason than to avoid the risk of being put on the trading block!

For more information on becoming an Emotion Coaching parent visit: http://www.talaris.org/spotlight_emocoaching_steps.htm

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Updated Wednesday, January 08, 2014