by Meg Meeker, MD
Great Parenting is simple, but it’s hard. Most parents make parenting far too difficult because they focus on the small stuff: what grades their kids are getting, what sports they excel at and what kinds of clothes they wear. But in the big picture, these things really don’t matter––at least to kids. What matters to them is the answers they receive––particularly from their fathers––to three burning questions. And here’s a scary thought: all fathers are answering them but most aren’t really paying attention to what they’re saying. Let’s look at each question.
Dad, what do you believe about me?
If you and I had coffee, you would be able to articulate in several minutes exactly what your father believed about you. He either communicated that you were smart or stupid, capable or weak. The reason we can say this is because what our fathers believe about us shapes who we become. Teachers help us, coaches inspire us, but fathers shape our identities.
If you are a father, whether your child is 2 or 18, they need to know that you believe in their ability to be a strong, capable person worth loving. They need to know their life matters. Many fathers believe these things about their kids but don’t necessarily communicate them. You must, because knowing your deep beliefs changes who your child becomes.
The best way to figure out what you are communicating to your child is to look inside your heart. Do you really believe that your child is strong, compassionate, good and capable? Or, do you believe deep down that he or she is a disappointment? Often fathers who have children who remind them of themselves project negative feelings onto the child, causing the child to believe that he is a failure. If that is the case, face your feelings and let the child be himself––not you. Come to grips with your deep beliefs about your child because I guarantee that he knows exactly how you really feel. The best way to help him feel better about himself is for you to believe better about him.
Dad, how do you feel about me?
There are two sentences that every troubled teen I have ever seen, says. They are: no one cares enough to listen to me and no one really loves me. Interestingly, if I asked the fathers of those troubled teens what they felt about their kids, most would concur that they love their children very much. So why, then, do the teens not feel loved? Usually it is because the father focused on so many other things in his life or the teen’s life that he failed to let the child know that he loved being with him and that he valued him. These are such simple concepts and yet great fathers can miss them because they focus on the wrong things––whether or not the child is scoring enough soccer goals, getting good enough grades or making the right friend.
Our current parenting climate trains fathers to make sure that kids do enough. They believe that if their kids excel at enough things then a) the child will be happy, get into a good college or have a good job and b) that he will be a good dad because his child will be more successful than his friends’ kids. Many parents fall into this trap without realizing it and what they end up with is a child who performs well, has good friends, and is polite but who feels empty on the inside.
Kids who run here and there to perform well see right through what’s going on. They feel like puppets rather than young people who are loved because they are the child of a father whom they admire. They want to know that their father adores them because they are his, rather than knowing that they can get into Stanford. Love makes them whole. Activities make them busy.
Dad, what are your hopes for me?
In many children and teens’ minds, the good life ends around 25 years of age. For children who grow up in poverty, they wonder if they’ll even live past their mid twenties. For more fortunate children, they believe that since the high school and college years are the “best years of their lives,” they’d better live them well.
Children have difficulty cognitively perceiving what life will be like in a year or two. That’s why they need a father to talk to them about their future hopes and dreams. This accomplishes two very important things. First, asking about what a teen would like to do in his thirties or forties helps the child have perspective. We teach kids that self control during their teen years is integral to success and fathers must show them that a future pay off will come in order to keep them motivated.
More importantly, talking to your child about your hopes for him gives him a positive belief about his future. When a father communicates that a child may travel, become a lawyer, fulfill their dream of being a missionary, whatever, he communicates their ability to get there. This gives them goals to hold onto and the determination and drive to accomplish them. Why? Because Dad said it could happen. That’s the power that a father has in a child’s life.
Every child sees their father as a hero. The only job a father has is to step into the role and maintain it. And the good news is this: every father is wired with exactly what he needs to be a hero to his child.
The best way to begin being your child’s hero is to focus on the big stuff in your child’s life. Think about the three questions posed above. Then sit behind your child’s eyes. What does he hear you say? What does she know you think? Then ask yourself: what do I believe about my child and how do my real beliefs stack up against what I am communicating? Are you saying I love you with your mouth, your actions, your gestures? If not, get to it.
When you talk about your hopes for your child, remember this: keep them positive and focused around your child’s character. Let your son know that he has the courage to go after his dreams. Tell your daughter that she has the tenacity to get to where she wants to go.
At the very end of the Old Test-ament, God wrote in Malachi 4:6 : “I will send them Elijah and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” And then comes the subsequent warning “Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” Then, God went silent for 300 years. Quite a punctuation mark.
So, fathers, stop worrying about what you are buying your kids or how many of their sports teams you should coach. Get to the business of doing the great work Your Father called you to––begin to turn your heart toward your children.
Pediatrician, mother, and best-selling author of six books, Dr. Meg Meeker is the country’s leading authority on parenting, teens and children’s health. Her current book is Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need (Regnery Publishing) is available now. Dr. Meeker is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, certified by The American Board of Pediatrics and serves on the Advisory Board of The Medical Institute. She is an active part of the NFL’s Fatherhood Initiative, and is a regular speaker at Dave Ramsey’s Smart Conferences.