There are lots of lists on how to be the best dad. They range from the complex to the simple—take them hunting, listen to them, love their mom.
We can focus on externals, things we can’t control, or lessons we should teach them (make your bed, eat breakfast, talk nice). I’m more concerned about how we treat them and what we model for them. I always wanted to be a supermodel, and this is my best chance.
I’m a father of four. I don’t always get it right. A lot of the time I get it wrong, sometimes very wrong. When I’m tired, hungry, and grumpy, sometimes the kids carry the brunt. I’m not the perfect dad, nor the best.
What I have done is listen.
I’ve listened to people speak about their deceased parents (I’ve officiated about 100 funerals), I’ve heard fathers with grown children speak of their regrets, and I’ve listened to youth speak of the struggles they have with their parents (eight years as a youth pastor).
From my experience, study, and trial and error with my children, these three things appear to be the most important:
1) Apologize to your kids.
If there is one thing the world needs, it’s for people to be able to admit when they’re wrong, say sorry, and act differently. We teach our kids to say sorry to each other or their superiors as though the only people they need to apologize to are their peers and those who are in charge of them. But what about those they assert their power over? What about parents and children? Or as they grow older, bosses and employees?
When we apologize to our children, we teach them that even though no one can force us to say sorry, we choose to, because it is what is right. It teaches children that accountability is essential and that, first and foremost, we need to be accountable to ourselves. If we expect others to apologize for their mistakes, so should we.
It would probably be a surprise to hear that a repentant parent is a strong memory. I hear about it countless times when interviewing a family for a memorial service. Even my strongest memory as a child is when my father apologized to me. Let’s teach our kids that we’re not perfect while they’re young—they’ll realize it for themselves soon enough.
2) Show affection and say “I love you.”
The best advice I ever received from someone was to say “I love you” and hug and kiss your kids. I recall a former boss/pastor telling me, “My biggest regret as a father is that I didn’t tell my kids that I love them enough, and I didn’t hug and kiss them often enough.”
Children need to know what appropriate masculine affection looks like. They need to know how to give it and how to receive it. In a world that is confused about how to express emotion, let alone affection, dads need to step up to the plate.
It probably has never been modeled for you. It will probably be hard. I know it was and is for me. Each year as my kids get older, I fight the thought that my sons are too old for me to kiss them goodnight. That’s when I remember the wisdom that was passed on to me. This world needs men and women who know what masculine love looks like.
3) Use your manners.
I have to be honest, number three is a hard one for me. I grew up in a military home—when your parents asked you to do something, you did it (and don’t make me tell you a second time). There was no “please” and “thank you.” While I do believe there are times when a task needs to get done, manners—as I have come to learn—are essential.
My wife and I increasingly strive to say “please” and “thank you” to our kids. Why? After all, you’re the parent and they’re the kid, they’re supposed to listen to you and do what you say. When we do not use manners with our children, we inadvertently teach them the powerful can demand compliance.
Manners teach our children about equality and free choice. In a world that is demanding, where violating rights is the norm, where we marginalize and divide people into categories according to stereotypes, we need to teach our children about humanity and equality. It seems like a daunting task, but when we use our manners when speaking to them and others, in a small way, we show them what that is all about.
Furthermore, we teach them about honor. When we use our manners, we demonstrate that other people have inherent value and we should give them dignity and honor, whether they deserve it or not.
Here’s a bonus tip from Jaidon, age 7 (who is home sick with a cold and fever):
4) Take care of your kids when they’re sick.
When I was a kid this meant chicken noodle soup, The Price is Right, and warm ginger ale. Now it is non-GMO dairy and egg-free chicken noodle soup, Youtube, and organic ginger and lemon tea.
Times change a little, but they still need us.
As parents, our most important job is to show them what it looks like to be a functional adult.
None of us will get it right all the time, but if we approach raising our kids with humility and grace—to them, ourselves, and others—we have taken an enormous step in making this world a little bit better.