Gregory Locke is holding his toy helicopter out with a "let's play, Daddy," as he beckons. On this recent Saturday morning, his dad, Jeff, is ankle deep in the towels and bedding that need to be washed before he runs his errands and heads out with the family to the air show at nearby Hill Air Force Base, where they're meeting friends.
He starts to shake his head, then stops himself, reaching instead for the attentive 3 year-old. "Help me, buddy," he says, scooping Gregory up for a tickle and squirm. "Help me sort these by color and I'll show you how a manly man does wash." He flexes his arm muscles and growls and the boy bursts out laughing.
For the next 20 minutes, they'll play and work both. Soon Jeff will take his daughter, Ruby, 8, with him to run errands while Gregory stays home with Miranda, 15. And later, they'll meet his wife Joyce when she gets off work and the whole family will enjoy the sensory spectacle of the jets and the crowd, both in full roar.
Reams have been written about fathers who fail — dads absent because they left or they don't have the time or inclination or perhaps just the opportunity to be there for their kids. Effective fatherhood is a less sensational story, sometimes played out in tiny scenes and fleeting moments like a dad sharing laundry chores with his boy. But it's a story that matters to the future of children. And living it is part art, part heart.
"The most important thing is to show up for the job every day," said Treion Muller of Farmington, who wrote "Dad Rules: A Simple Manual for a Complex Job." His own father didn't, gone when he was 7, leaving his family behind in a ghetto in Johannesburg, South Africa. It's a kind of fatherhood Muller, "chief elearning architect" at Franklin Covey and father of five kids, 2 to 12, doesn't intend to mimic. "I don't claim to be an expert. I claim to be a father in motion, working at it every day because it's going to take a lifetime to be a great dad."
"My son is 7 and forever wanting to play," said Mark Greene, a dad who shares custody with his ex-wife, His response to his son is to "simply be with him, play with him." He participates in The Good Men Project, which is a media company and social platform dedicated to helping men reach their potential as men and as dads.
Dave Robinson of Highland travels often for his employer, a global software company. When he's home, he makes a conscious effort to be mentally present, as well. "I think it can be easy to think of all the things you need to do. I make sure the kids are a priority." That means one-on-one time with each of them, doing things they enjoy. Jack's easy. At 6, he likes all things sports, which his dad likes, too. Ethan, 2, "thinks anything is fun." And Lauren, 4, and Mackenzie, 12, are happy running errands with their dad, riding bikes, hanging out. It isn't what they do but the togetherness that matters, he said, noting that a simple car ride some place is a great way to get to know what's happening in his kids' lives, from what they're thinking and doing to what makes them happy or sad.
A great father needs to "love, coach, model," said Carey Casey, president of the Kansas City-based National Center for Fathering. Then he elaborated on each one. Dad is loving, both to the child and to the child's mother — "Even if they're divorced, he's not negative." Dad coaches, whether it's sports or life skills, serving as a family's "chief encouragement officer." A good father, he said, "understands that all the children are wired differently" and knows what lights each child up. And he models important behaviors, from helping around the house to how a decent, loving man behaves.
His own dad taught him that "the ball is going to bounce your way sometime. When it comes, will you notice it? And if you notice it, will you be prepared?" Modeling how to be prepared, along with the loving and encouraging, are important traits for a dad.
An interactive dad
Dads often naturally know what children need and are hardwired to provide it, said Warren Farrell, author of "Father and Child Reunion" and a proponent of a proposal to create a presidential commission on boys and men, similar to one that exists for women and girls. Roughhousing, playing games, enforcing boundaries come naturally to most men, and "each have very important roles in a child's development." Overprotective parents sometimes miss the importance of letting a child make some decisions and learn to handle difficult interactions. It's part of helping a child "develop synapses connected to making good judgment, rather than being protected from making judgments," he said.
Good dads also excel at just hanging out with their kids, Farrell said. That seems to come more naturally to moms, who are more used to multitasking with the kids around, cooking dinner and doing other things with the kids, while dads may be more event- or activity-oriented. "The hanging out time is often when they are asking questions and expressing feelings, while doing something else," he said. He, too, gets close to his children during car rides. He also believes that dads are good at pushing kids to stretch their limits and develop new skills. "Dads will tend to do things that the mom will think the child is not ready for. So at each developmental stage, whatever the child has passed through, mom will tend to do more. Dad will push to the next level." Both are important.
Brad Wilcox, president of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said that the forms of play dads tend to engage in "teach children how to regulate their bodies and learn how to handle social interaction successfully."
Age appropriate play
Good fathering demands different approaches as children reach new stages associated with age. For younger children, John Hoffman, communications coordinator for Canada's Foreign Investment Review Agency and a freelance writer on fatherhood, suggests, "a great thing for a father to do is to put their child in a carrier and take them for a walk. Any physical contact allows the child to connect and bond with the father, providing added security beyond what the mother gives." As children move past that stage, "rough and tumble play with children can be an important way for father and child to connect." Wilcox recommends taking a teenager on a business trip or to work for the afternoon. "Giving them a sense of what they do from day to day can be a learning experience for your kids." As children move away from home, Frank Bedolla, principal of the Fathers and Families Coalition of Utah, has found technology to be useful. "When my daughter was in D.C., I would always text or email her," he said. "It became a great educational experience. She really looked forward to that."
Programs such as The Good Men Project and The Fathers and Families Coalition of America offer advice and motivation to fathers across the world. "Whenever I see a woman or a man walking with their child, talking with their child down on one knee, I feel such a sense of comradery," said Greene, "it's great to be one among many."
When the Deseret News asked dads what they hope to teach their children, reporters discovered a lovely consistency. Casey, who besides his work with the National Center for Fathering has been an NFL chaplain and author of "Championship Fathering," tells his youngest child, Chance, 15, that "Daddy loves you just like you are. Son, you are a winner and you are not a mistake. God knew exactly how to make you inside and out, so don't always try to compare yourself" to others. Quoting Winston Churchill, he noted that "success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts." He said his children need to know that.
Muller wants his kids to know not only that they are loved, but that he will always be there for them. "I am home every night, except rarely. I make it a point to be present." His wife, Soni, is part of the musical group Mercy River, so she travels a lot. He is consistently there.
Parenting author and educator Jennifer M. Koontz offers tips to fathers who want to hone their parenting skills and form strong relationships with their offspring. First, she said, dads need to not be afraid to be alone with a child. He needs to know that he can handle it, from the fussy baby stage on, but some fathers lack confidence. She also noted that "children love to cuddle with their dads. You guys have some kind of kid-calming mechanism implanted in you somehow, I am convinced. You're warm, you're calm, you talk in a low-pitched voice and you can sit for hours, snuggling and watching baseball. Revel in the fact that you have a talent that mom may not have — the snuggle factor. Kids often seek mom out for emergencies, no matter how trivial, but if you are open to it, they will seek you out for snuggling, for comfort, for security."
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