I think I may be leaving one phase of fatherhood behind even while I enter into another. My youngest child is just about to turn eight, which means that we are not only past the baby and toddler stages, but even nearing the end of the little kid phase. Meanwhile my oldest child has turned fourteen and is just months away from high school. All this change has caused me to think about fatherhood and the new challenges coming my way. I have found myself thinking back to the many models of fatherhood I have seen and admired through the years. What made these fathers admirable? What set them apart? What was it that they said to their children? From these models I have drawn seven things a good father says.
I love you. Few things are more important to a child than knowing where he stands with his parents. As I think back to my childhood, I remember several friends who lived with uncertainty in their relationship with their parents, and their fathers especially. They longed to hear words of love and approval. But I saw other kids who had total confidence in that love and approval. Often the difference was little more than three simple words repeated regularly: “I love you.” Men can be so petty, so prideful, and hold back those words. Yet there is no good reason for it. The more awkward it feels, the more urgent it is. From the dads I admire I’ve learn that a father needs to say, “I love you,” and he needs to say it often.
Let me kiss it better. Even as a young child I remember observing two different kinds of fathers in my church. When children fell and scraped their knees, there were two ways I saw dads react. Some fathers would pick up their children, set them back on their feet, and tell them to get over it. “You’re fine. Walk it off!” They wanted their soft children to toughen up. There were other fathers who would pick up their children, hold them in their arms, make a show of extending comfort, and say, “Let me kiss it better.” These were fathers who wanted their hard children to soften up. Sure, there are times to tell your child to walk it off, but there are far more times to extend love and concern through those childhood bumps and bruises and through the bigger sins and mistakes that come with age. From the dads I admire I’ve learned the value of saying, “Let me kiss it better” (though, obviously, as the children get older the wording changes!).
Come with me. There is so much in life that can be better caught than taught. Often the best way to train up a child is to let that child into your life. One father I admire taught me the distinction between being face-to-face with my children and being shoulder-to-shoulder. I saw this shoulder-to-shoulder parenting in my own father who often brought me with him on his errands or, even better, to his work. This allowed me to see the value of putting in a hard day’s work, and the value of building relationships with clients, suppliers, and so many others. It allowed me to see that work was an extension of the rest of life, and not a part of life that exists all on its own. The fathers I have admired are the fathers who say to their children, “Come with me,” and who welcome them into their day-to-day lives.
Please forgive me. Every father sins against every one of his children. He probably does it every day. Sadly, sin is every bit as inevitable as death and taxes. Fathers need to be in the habit of identifying their sin to their children and asking forgiveness. But as I think back, I saw this and heard of this in so few fathers. There are only a few I knew to consistently identify their sin and seek forgiveness for it. As I consider my fourteen years of parenting, I see far too little of it as well. The practice seems so much more difficult than the theory. The good dad is the one who humbly, carefully says to his children, “Please forgive me.”
You’re forgiven. Just as every father sins against every one of his children, every child sins against his father. The father who asks forgiveness also needs to be willing to extend forgiveness. Every father punishes his child at times, but too many fathers punish in the worst way—by holding a grudge or by letting the child suffer as dad withholds forgiveness and reconciliation. Our children need to be forgiven and they need to experience the joy of reconciliation. Here I think of a father I know—a father I admire—who taught me that a good dad doesn’t just say, “It’s okay,” but always goes further to say, “You’re forgiven.”
Let’s pray. There is one father I admire whom I have only met in the pages of books he has written. Of all he has written, what has gripped me most is the ways in which he prays with his children. He reserves special time each week for each child and in that time he inquires about their souls and prays with them. That sounds like a wonderful practice. And in the rhythm of daily life with all its ups and downs he is also quick to lead them in seeking God’s strength, God’s help, God’s wisdom. Here he teaches them the best and deepest kind of dependency on the best and greatest Help in the world. I have learned from him that the good dad is quick to say, “Let’s pray.”
You can’t do it. We live at a time when parents are known for being extravagant in their praise for their children and assuring them, “You can do anything.” But the good dad assures his children that in the most important area, they can’t do it. They simply can’t. One of the great challenges every Christian father faces is in showing his child that behavior is a reflection of the heart and that the child cannot simply will himself into heart change. And this is where the gospel becomes so precious, because it begins with that inability, leads straight to the blood and righteousness of Christ, and then to the enabling of the Holy Spirit. The dads I love and admire are the dads who assure their children, “You can’t do it,” and who quickly lead them to the gospel and to the Savior who can.
I am eager to hear what you have learned from good fathers. So, following roughly the same format, tell me what you’ve heard a good father say…