Fathers: We Must Learn From Our Children

By paying careful attention to who our kids are, we can help them realize their dreams.

Most of us develop a relationship with our children beginning before they are even born. We talk to them, we imagine being involved in their lives, and we think about what they’ll be like – usually in ways that reflect our own dreams. After all, we haven’t met our children yet. We wonder, who will they be and what will they like doing with us? Maybe they’ll want to read a book, kick a soccer ball or draw with me, but maybe not.

I was talking with a friend about the expectations we have for our children recently. He always imagined his kids would be good students, but they weren’t. So what does a father do with expectations – and we all have them – including when those aren’t met?

To start, at a most basic and perhaps obvious level, we help our children. We learn from them who they are, what they need and what their strengths and weaknesses are, as well as their likes and dislikes. We help them become who they are and to reach their potential.

When Children Come Into Their Own

At age 11, my friend’s son asked if he was good at sports. My friend told him he was good enough to enjoy sports for the rest of his life if he wanted, and that at the moment he was a better soccer player than baseball player. The boy took his father seriously and decided to concentrate on soccer – practices, summer clinics and playing with those who were more skilled. He played in high school and college and was captain of both teams, although never the best player.

His father taught him the qualities of leadership: work hard, make others better with your play and attitude, encourage your fellow players, ask what they need and how you can help. Now he is a leader in his work life.

My friend’s son was never a good student due to a learning disability. His father learned that pressuring him to succeed in school would lead to anger and rebellion; so instead, he encouraged him in his studies while helping him succeed where his heart was – on the soccer field with his band of friends, many of whom he still has.

Meanwhile, his daughter had always liked to read, and he imagined she would be an eager student. She wasn’t, and her frustration in school taught him about who she was, who she wasn’t and the limitations she faced. He listened and learned.

She loved horses, was excited about taking care of them and improving as a rider. She learned to canter and compete, then jump. She competed for a year in college and recently she invited him to watch her ride and jump. He made a photo book of her hour-long ride to validate her interest, honor her achievement and celebrate her near-20-year course of effort. She beamed during the ride and afterward at the photo book. Now she works at a barn exercising the horses, helping children dress their horses for riding and riding trails with learners. She is a well-respected hard worker, with dreams of doing more with horses in the future.

Helping Our Kids Reach Their Potential

I think my friend has it right – help with your children’s limitations while celebrating their passion, their nature and their core abilities. Along those lines, here’s what we must do as parents:

Learn to see each child accurately. Despite the pressures of our own wishes and preconceptions, the arc of their lives is not about pleasing us. My job as a father is to know my children, be there for them and help develop their strengths while not rejecting them for their weaknesses, thereby injuring and devaluing them.

Be willing to be vulnerable in front of your children. Understand that this is a necessity if we want our children to speak to us about their weaknesses and problems as well as their successes. They need to know about our own doubts and the turning points in our lives. They need to know about our failures. I told both my kids that I got my lowest grade in a college sociology class: 36 percent. They both laughed.

Acknowledge that there are multiple roads to a satisfying life. My road was a good one for me, but my children will each find a path that works for them, and I can’t predict it or insist they follow the path I recommend.

But is this as easy as I make it sound? It can be if we are willing to keep an open mind and heart. Fathers can take the time to do a“relationship check-up” with their children. Think of a series of questions to initiate and encourage ongoing dialogue between yourself and your child. It’s a structured way to have a heart-to-heart talk about two central themes: your everyday lives and your relationship with each other. To start, you could both respond to the following questions and prompts:

  • What are two things I like about school (for the child) or work (for the parent)?
  • Name two things you each like about one another.
  • Name something you each wish you could do together.
  • What is one way we could strengthen our relationship?

The questions could be about anything. The key is that both of you have a chance to talk and listen to each other.

I am grateful for the 30 years I have been a father. No role or job has been more important, no concern has been more central and no joy rivals what I have derived from fatherhood. As Kyle Pruett has said, we have “fatherneed” – my children have needed me and I have needed them to feel I am living a full life. 

So dads, have the attitude that you have a lot to learn from your children, and have the courage to feel like a beginner. They will teach you how to be a good father to them if you’re willing to see who they are and what they need. We start by holding our infants and thinking, “Now what?” Hopefully we evolve to learn from them and allow our children to show us who they are, so we can do our very best to give them what they need.


This post first appeared on the U.S. News & World Report Parenting Blog.

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