When I was a child, my dad seemed omnipotent. When he walked into a room, he was larger than life. He was someone who always knew how to fix a problem or find the right person to help if he couldn’t do it himself – which was rare. Over the years, I developed a lot of the same skills that I had always admired my dad having: an ease with public speaking, a practical approach to finances, self-confidence and a keen sense of time management. Would I be the same woman today if I had not had my dad as a role model? Probably not.
A father’s influence lasts a lifetime. Children look to their fathers for strength, encouragement and support. Both sons and daughters mimic their dads from a very young age. Picture a small boy pretending to dress up for work like his dad (crooked, over-sized tie and all) or a little girl struggling to reach a booming baritone while pretending to give a speech to a captivated audience. It’s true that someone might find it’s more natural to tell a young boy, “You remind me of your dad when he was little,” than a young girl. However, dads have just as much influence on their daughters – despite the gender difference – and daughters often grow up to be reflective images of their dads. Fathers are role models for both genders in many profound ways. Children learn about honesty, relationships, compassion and self-love from their dads.
A Father’s Perspective
“Men, in general, tend to construct, maintain and build intimacy through activity, whereas women tend to develop bonds through talking,” says Mark Morman, Ph.D., Professor of Communication Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at Baylor University in Waco, TX. Morman has conducted years of research in social learning and communication. “A father is the single most important model for how a child will father in the future. Those children who grow up with [dysfunctional or neglectful fathers] have a hard time breaking the cycle and need to make a strong effort to father differently.” Morman explains that fathers use a masculine approach to developing relationships. This means doing things with their kids to form bonds. A father might coach his daughter’s softball team, take his son fishing or sing in the church choir with his kids. This is a dad’s comfort zone – being immersed in activities with his children.
LeRoy E. Reese, Ph.D., a psychologist at Akoma Counseling and Consulting, Inc. in Decatur, GA, stresses, “One of the most important things I have learned as a dad is to be emotionally available to my kids. They have seen me emotionally vulnerable, and I believe this has been important to both my son and my daughters.” Reese adds that he is not afraid to express physical affection to all of his kids, including his son. “Sons should understand the normalcy of males expressing affection for each other.”
Reese also likes to spend quality time doing things with his children. “I recommend to parents, and especially fathers, to date their kids on a regular basis and to spend individual time with each child doing something that reflects his or her interests. I hike and do 5Ks with my oldest daughter, go to the symphony with my son and draw with my youngest. It is around these events that I learn the most about my kids.”
Fathers often consider part of their role to be that of “family protector.” This does not entail using aggressive behavior to solve problems. Instead, fathers should remember that their duty is to demonstrate strength of character and convictions to solve problems.
Stevan Lynn (a.k.a. Coach Lynn), producer and host of the award-winning television program “Dare 2 Dream: A Father’s Guide to Success,” guest talk show host (WHCR 90.3 FM in NY) and founder of the Fatherhood Training Center in Bronx, NY, has helped countless fathers succeed as caregivers. “In teaching our children the formula to having real strength, fathers must embrace the concept of leading by example. The strength he exhibits while overcoming challenges provides a visual guide for his children to draw upon when their own strength is tested.” When a father solves a problem while holding it together both emotionally and physically, he teaches his children such values as civility, compromise and ingenuity.
Reese asserts, “On the issue of defending oneself, I think being positively assertive is key, as is knowing when and how to ask for help, and that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Dads as Role Models for Sons AND Daughters
“Social learning is vital when it comes to parenting. We learn by watching others,” Morman stresses. Therefore, fathers need to be cognizant of their words and their actions because their children will ultimately emulate them.
It depends on the father and individual situations, but Morman feels fathers should nurture and advise their sons and daughters the same. “Fathers who instill confidence and competence in both sons and daughters end up with confident and self-motivated children.”
Lynn has a similar view. “While there are no gender-specific rules in a father becoming his kids’ role model, fathers must take into account that, as the kids grow, [their] understanding of their psyche must evolve. Fathers can serve as strong role models by exhibiting sacrifice on a consistent basis in regards to providing for their needs (not their wants) and encouraging their dreams. These simple acts resonate with kids.”
“It is ineffective and hypocritical to assume a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude. Kids are sponges and they absorb everything they see and hear, so fathers have to be very intentional about their words and actions,” Reese instructs. “Dads serve as role models by working to be their best selves and allowing their children to see their imperfections. Dads should also demonstrate loving predictability, consistency, discipline and unconditional acceptance.”
On a personal level, Coach Lynn feels his guidance has helped to develop a strong character in his children. “Being a role model to my children has been paramount in raising them to be confident and compassionate adults.” He believes his guiding principle was to lead by example. “Seasoned parents understand that while our children may listen to 10 percent of what we preach, they most certainly watch 100 percent of what we do. Therefore, it is imperative to give them a positive, consistent and inspirational visual, coupled with lots of hugs and “I love yous,” to shore up their belief in your words of wisdom.”
A Dad’s Influence on Future Relationships
Both sons and daughters look to their father’s relationship with their mother as a guideline for what to expect in future relationships. It’s imperative that fathers model respect and understanding in all family relationships, such as with in-laws and grandparents.
Lynn states, “Developing healthy relationships is a lifelong process. Dads can help build a sense of what it takes by exhibiting a positive attitude and promoting the concepts of faith, sacrifice, patience, commitment and unconditional love.” Lynn says that these characteristics are the cornerstones of healthy relationships.
Reese believes dads can help kids develop a healthy outlook on relationships through demonstration. “All healthy relationships start with respect. One of the best ways a dad can demonstrate this is by having a healthy relationship with his wife or partner and mother of their child.”
Morman reports, “Some research suggests that, in general, a woman falls in love with a man similar to her dad because he is the first man she loved and had as a role model.” This poses a problem if a daughter has grown up with someone who didn’t teach her that she is worthy of respect – the result can be a string of bad relationships. “Daughters who don’t get approval from their dads growing up might seek approval from other men,” Morman warns.
When Dads Make the Best of Difficult Circumstances
Sometimes dads cannot always be physically available because they are not living with their children full time due to divorce, military service or other types of job relocations and family situations. Dads can still have strong relationships with their children, even if circumstances sometimes keep them physically separated.
“Fathers must make a strong effort to maintain an ongoing presence with their kids even when they can’t be physically present,” Morman explains. “I travel a lot, but I always text my son. I send him lots of pictures, too.” If there is ongoing contact, your presence never goes away.
“Fathering from afar adds another dimension to the list of responsibilities and challenges. However, Dad can still have a profound influence through consistent and constant communication and by immersing himself in his kids’ lives,” Lynn points out.
“In summary, fatherhood is a gift, a privilege and a responsibility. I am not perfect as a father, but without question, I am a better man because I take being a dad seriously,” Reese shares.