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What is a father? To boil fatherhood down to the male role in the act of human creation would be nothing less than criminal. If you had a good father, a bad father, or never knew your father at all, you understand where I’m coming from.

All fathers are created equal, for every man becomes a father in the same way, but that ends the moment your child is born. At that point, your fatherhood becomes a legacy. Everything you do and say, how you treat your wife, friends, co-workers, spend your spare time, deal with frustration and stress—it’s all recorded in the mind of your child and has a profound impact on the way they develop.

Fatherless children are more likely to suffer from disciplinary issues, end up in jail, commit arson, and drop out of high school. That’s the short list for absent fathers, not terrible ones. Obviously, being present is an excellent start, but what else makes a father good? I believe the answer to that is best found in the qualities that make up fatherhood itself.

A Father is a Social Connection

Unless your family lives in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp, you probably won’t start off as a protector. But the moment your child comes into this world, you will be someone to make eye contact with, a reassuring voice, a pair of loving arms, and so on. At the very least, you should make up fifty percent of the human interaction your child receives during infancy. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Regular interaction with your child during their formative years is the best way to ensure they mature in social, cognitive, and emotional skills, many of which peak before age four. Read our article on if The First 1000 Days Determine The Rest of Your Life?

So, as one half of the parenting spectrum, the father is blessed with a tremendous opportunity to have a positive social and emotional impact on his child. Think about it. Mommy is going to be exhausted right after your child is born (Especially if she’s breastfeeding.)

Now, your child won’t need a lot of entertaining when they’re younger, nor will said entertaining need to be very complicated. So, while mommy is getting some much needed rest, dad can step in and provide the oh-so-important mental stimulation. I kid you not, something as simple as looking your baby in the eye and telling them about your day will go a long way toward healthy brain development.

Dad and daughter

Your presence in the home becomes increasingly important as your child ages. Your behavior will become a blueprint for your child as they build their lives, one day at a time. How do you treat them? How do you treat their mother when your day isn’t going the way you think it should? What kind of language do you use when you get that ‘everything’s falling apart’ phone call from work? How much do you drink in the evening? What do you do when your back is against the wall? See what I mean? As your child gets older, you become a model of the human condition for them. Your behavior could set subconscious mental goals and limits for them.

My father was a drunk, why should I be any different? My father yells at my mother every time they fight, it always worked for him. Remember, what you do on a daily basis is a big indicator of who you are as a person, so if you want your kid to turn out better than you did (and who wouldn’t), start doing the right things now.

A Father is a Protector

I know we’re not exactly hiding in caves from saber-toothed tigers anymore, but that doesn’t mean your family doesn’t need protecting. By the time your child can walk, they will likely have discovered fear. Odds are, as the father, you are larger and have a deeper voice than your partner. There’s an instinctual confidence in these traits that label you as a shield from all forms of danger, real or imagined. In my case, it’s tornadoes.

My five-year-old daughter has a unique phobia of them and can’t really seem to grasp their overall rarity or the conditions in which they spawn. If a cloud presents itself in the sky with even the slightest hint of gray, I will be sent outside to ascertain the ‘tornado threat level’. And, regardless of the weather, trips to the grocery store and other locales are often the subject of her ever popular, “Dad, what would we do if a tornado happened right here, right now?” scenarios. Saying it won’t happen is not good enough.

I always have to outline a specific plan based on our current surroundings before she’s satisfied. But I’m the one she always comes to with these questions, not my wife. We’ve never been through a tornado. Tornados in our little part of the world are exceedingly rare. Still, I must daily assail my daughter’s concerns about the possibility of an F-5 appearing on a cloudless day to keep her from becoming a nervous wreck. Thus, I protect my daughter from her fears.

Kids don’t stay young though, they grow up. As they grow, they’ll still need protection, but it’ll be less from tornadoes, spiders, or snakes, and more from the world itself. Every society has no lack of incorrigibles that like to take advantage of people and exploit the vulnerable.

Fulfilling your protector role also means giving your children good advice and being involved enough in their lives that you’ll recognize when they’re heading into an unsafe situation or engaging in self-destructive behaviors. You may have already overcome these things, and that makes your experience as good as gold.

A Father is a Provider

We might no longer be running gazelles to death across the savannah to get dinner for our families, but today’s fathers are still expected to provide. Go type ‘my wife left me because I lost my job’ on your internet search-bar. Hundreds of stories will come up. In developed countries, men are rarely the sole providers, but even if your wife works and makes more money than you do, that doesn’t mean you’re not a provider.

My wife is a pharmacist. I’m a firefighter. She makes three times what I do, yet she’s never questioned my ability to provide for our family. I’ve always provided what I could, when I could. I’ve provided a social connection, protection, my time. I’ve done the dishes when it wasn’t my turn. Cooked when she was exhausted. Stayed up late after being awake all night on an ambulance to console screaming babies so she could get a few hours of much needed sleep.

Hard work and sacrifice don’t always translate into money, but they are a great indicator of passion. Skip the gym one night if your wife is drowning in housework. Cut back on your nightly game time and read to your kids. A father who is passionate about his family will find ways to provide for them, even if he brings in no money at all.

A Father is Power Under Control

I heard this in a sermon on parenting last year. Power Under Control was how the preacher described God. The idea is that God would be totally justified in wiping out anyone who opposed Him and has the power to do so. But He doesn’t. He restrains His judgement, giving people time to realize their mistakes and come to Him for forgiveness. The preacher used this as a model for parenthood.

There are many forms of power, and most of the time, we’re pretty good at controlling them. For instance, if you didn’t control your physical strength while spanking your child, you’d rightfully end up in jail for child abuse. That’s all well and good, but what about psychological power? What about emotional power? Let’s say you had a bad day at work. Do you take out your frustrations at home? Do you yell? Say hurtful things you don’t mean to your wife? Sulk in the corner with your phone?

Young children won’t understand everything you say, but they do understand emotion. If dad is fine and happy one day, then a hurricane of anger the next, your kids may develop a healthy distrust of you, as any sensible person would. An emotionally stable parent is a safe parent.

I think younger parents have a harder time with this than older ones. My dad was like that when I was younger, but he mellowed out quickly. I remember always wanting to talk to him when I messed up because, although he would still punish me, he never yelled or screamed or became emotional. He was in control. That made me respect him, even when he was disciplining me. When he was calm, even his punishments seemed to come from a place of love. You can control your emotions. You can stop and think. You can be power under control, and if you are, everyone in your household will respect you more.

A Father is Not Who He Used to Be

If you have a child and nothing has changed in your life, that would be a huge red flag. Being a good father inevitably requires sacrifice. I loved working out before my kids were born. But when they showed up, I didn’t visit a gym for three years. I could’ve, but that would have required their mother to give up even more of her already sparse free time.

Back then, it seemed like a pretty big ask, but I don’t regret it in the slightest. I’m back in the gym these days with no detriment to my fitness goals, and my favorite hobbies haven’t become a point of contention with my wife. I know other couples that weren’t so lucky. For example, A and B used to go fishing together. They both enjoyed it and went all the time.

However, when the baby came along, A never adjusted his schedule. He kept on fishing, while B stayed at home with the baby. Now their LO is grown, but are they back to fishing together? Nope. Because now, B resents A for all those times he left her doing his share of the work while he continued to pursue his own interests.

They say marriage is 50-50, that is, each person is required to give an equal amount of themselves to the relationship in order to make it successful. I say raising a kid is 100-100. You give way more than 50% if you’re doing it right.

Loving your family occasionally means giving up things you never thought you’d go without and having a good attitude about it. If your mother sourly reminded you every day that she would’ve been a famous actress if you hadn’t been born, you wouldn’t get the sense that she loves you very much, right? We fathers must show the same love to our families with our attitudes of sacrifice.

You might not get to spend every evening in the garage working on your bronco, but that’s okay, you’d rather spend it with your kids while they’re still living under your roof. Loving your family means giving of yourself gladly, not grudgingly.

My Experience

Everything I’ve shared with you so far, I had to learn the hard way. I married a very wise woman who came from a difficult upbringing. But as she suffered, she developed a singular mindset—my family will only ever do things the right way. Naturally, that applied to me. Once married, we were no longer two individuals. We were one family. We succeeded together and failed together.

I’ve had bad days as a father and seen the effect they’ve had on my children. I can’t imagine how my two wonderful girls would be now if I’d let those bad days turn into bad years. It wasn’t easy for me. Some people are selfless by nature. I’m not. I thought I was, but it turns out I just had a low threshold for what it took to make me happy.

When my kids were babies, I still got plenty of me time. I had to sacrifice some, but not too much. As they got older, and my wife asked more and more of me, that brought my ugly side out. That was when I discovered that I wasn’t really as committed to family as I thought I was. Facing your shortcomings is painful, but it’s the only way to grow as a person. And everything I had to give up in the pursuit of being a good father, I eventually got back, and now enjoy without the guilt.

To be a good father, you’ll have to be strong when you feel weak. Confident when you feel confused. Content when you go without. Willing to be around. Ready to give more than you receive. Able to put up with the insignificant, inconvenient, and obtrusive all in the name of demonstrating what love is to your family by living it out every single day.

Therefore, I think a father is best defined as: love in action.

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Adam MacDaniels - one of the Stuff4Tots editorial team
Adam MacDaniels

A dad of two little girls plus he's a trained Paramedic and a Firefighter. Is there anything that Adam MacDaniels can't do??