33 Ways To Be A Better Father
Illustration by Ms Yo Hosoyamada
Fatherhood is a lifelong job. It’s a role that comes with a wealth of rewards and plenty of tough challenges. There is no masterplan, rule book or job description. You learn as you go – often making a few mistakes along the way. To celebrate Father’s Day, MR PORTER offers the wisdom of dads who’ve discovered that by actively engaging with their children, maintaining positive communication, and demonstrating respectful relationships, they – and you – can have a profound impact on children’s lives.
Begin before the birth
London-based physician Dr Hani Hassan advises “establishing a strict sleep schedule – going to bed and waking up at the same time every day to train your internal body clock”. Mr Jay Revan, a fitness coach at the luxury health club Third Space, agrees. “Having a consistent wake-up time can help to regulate the body’s natural sleep cycle and promotes better-quality sleep, which leads to high energy levels during the day.”
Research has shown that men who hold their baby close in the first 24 hours after their baby is born report better bonding with their newborn. “Even if you don’t make it to the birth, you can both still reap the benefits of skin-to-skin contact,” says midwife Ms Avril Flynn. Skin-to-skin contact lowers the heart rate and stress hormones in the baby.
Be present and engaged
“Explore your employer’s flexible working and parental leave policies,” says Mr Elliott Rae, founder of MusicFootballFatherhood. Make this one of the first things you do when you know you’re going to become a dad. “See how they can support you being able to spend more time with your children.”
Get fit for fatherhood
“If you don’t look after number one, then number one can’t look after anyone else,” says Mr David Levey, founder of the DADpreneur Club. Resist the convenience of fast food and watch your energy levels. “This will ensure that you have the resources necessary to nurture your children.”
Immerse yourself in fatherhood from the start – changing nappies, feeding, health checks, bath time. Do whatever you can. A BMJ study found that when men are confident in their role as a father in the early years, it leads to fewer behavioural problems when the teenage years kick in.
Get your endorphins flowing
“Most new or busy dads tell themselves they don’t have time for exercise,” says Mr Joe Warner, the editor of the health and performance website Unfiltered. “But that’s because they think working out requires hours per week, which isn’t the case. Consider getting a running buggy or a baby seat for your bike. Even a 20-minute power walk is a great way to get your heart pumping and feel-good endorphins flowing.”
Talk through your worries
A 2020 study published in The Lancet found that children of fathers who experience mental health issues may also face challenges. Hence, fathers maintaining good mental health can play a significant role in their children’s development.
Model good habits
“Children model their dads’ behaviour in all sorts of ways,” Levey says. “Improve just one small thing in your daily life. Then another, and another, and so on. Rinse and repeat.” You could choose to refrain from being negative or complaining about work in front of the kids. “Doing this will have profound benefits for your kids – and for you, too.”
Join the fun
When fathers engage positively with their children, it leads to fewer behavioural problems and improved cognitive abilities – as a 2017 study published in the Journal Of Family Psychology demonstrated. Showing an interest in their interests – no matter how many times you have to watch Frozen – will help build emotional support over the long haul.
Sing their praises
“Make sure to praise your child’s effort, commitment and improvement – not whether they win or are successful,” says Mr Gordon MacLelland, father of two and CEO of Parents In Sport. Research from the University of Cambridge found that dads can cultivate warmth by expressing love, offering praise and providing comfort and security.
Talk out loud to them even before they can speak. Read stories, news items and social media posts to them. Sing in the car and ask them grown-up questions they don’t yet understand, such as, “What should mummy and I have for dinner tonight?” They’ll look at you blankly, laugh, or mimic your mouth movements – all of which are good. Research from the University of North Carolina found that a father’s vocabulary has a stronger effect on a child’s language development than a mother’s.
Talk fatherhood with other dads
“Kids don’t come with a manual,” Levey says. “And men often don’t read instructions anyway. Build yourself a support network where you’re free to share your worries and struggles as a dad. Accept that you are doing your best. Only then can you improve.”
Protect your partner
“For someone suffering with PND, the simplest of tasks can sometimes seem like a mountain,” says Mr Mark Williams, a mental health campaigner and author of Daddy Blues. “As the new dad, you’ll most likely be the first to witness her symptoms – even if you don’t know exactly what they are.”
Breathe like a baby
Lie down placing one hand on your chest and another on your stomach. Breathe in. If your chest rises first, it’s a sign of shallow, stress-induced breathing. To de-stress, focus on breathing through the nose, slowly, and allowing your abdomen to rise. Repeat until you’re sleeping like a baby, too.
“As a dad, it can be tempting to want to give my children everything they want and protect them from any discomfort,” says Mr Bodé Aboderin, author of Fatherhood By Papa B. “I have learned that saying ‘no’ when necessary is important for their growth and development. It teaches them that they can’t always get what they want, and helps them develop resilience and problem-solving skills.”
Don’t disrespect their mum
A study in the Journal Of Marriage And Family concluded that fathers who model respectful and loving behaviour in their relationships provide a powerful example for their children’s future relationships. This includes how fathers treat their partners and how they navigate disagreements and conflicts.
Don’t disrespect the referee, either
“Children are quick to notice adult behaviours around them,” MacLelland says. “Be respectful to your child, the coach, the referee, and other children playing the game. If you display positive behaviour in the car, on the sideline, and towards other individuals involved in the game, then your children will see this and act accordingly.”
Prioritise parents’ evening
Studies show that children whose fathers are “highly involved with their kids’ schooling” earn better grades. Merge the school calendar with your own to make sure you don’t miss the next parent’s evening, school performance and the dads’ race on sports day.
Tune in to your kids
“Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and give your children your full attention,” Aboderin says. Studies show that in the UK, “quality” family time together is a mere 34 minutes a day on average. “Being present with them has helped me understand their needs and build trust with them.”
“When they want to show me something, I take the time to look at it and ask questions,” Aboderin says. “When they want to talk, I listen with empathy and without judgement.”
Eat with them
Demanding toddlers and weaning babies will try a food up to 20 times before finally deciding if they like it or not. Avoid putting food in front of them while you’re off doing something else – it can put them off eating generally. Sit down with them and encourage them to try new flavours.
“Comparisons are the thief of joy,” MacLelland says. “They can be inaccurate and have a detrimental effect on you and your child. Children mature at different times, particularly during puberty, but also before. That is why it is important to focus on their individual technique and skill acquisition as opposed to physical outcomes.”
“I have also learned the power of play,” Aboderin says. “Whether it’s playing board games, having a dance party or going on a hike, spending time together in a playful way has helped us connect and has given us a break from the stresses of daily life.”
Be honest with yourself
Fathers who demonstrate high emotional intelligence — understanding, managing and appropriately expressing their own emotions — are more likely to raise emotionally intelligent children. This boosts children’s emotional and social skills, contributing to their overall wellbeing, according to research published in the Journal Of Family Issues.
Find common ground
“With stepchildren, common ground isn’t a one-way route,” says Dr Rachel Andrew, a family mediator and psychologist. “They will know little about you just as you know little about them. Go into the relationship thinking this is a real opportunity for you to share your interests with them and, if they want to be a part of that, then allow them to do so.”
Get fit as a family
“Kids respond best to watching what you do,” Warner says. “Setting a positive example by exercising with them will set them on the right path to a fuller and healthier life, and also forge an even stronger bond between you. Walks, bike rides or kicking a ball around don’t require much time, money or effort, but will create the memories and habits your kids will carry for ever.”
Clean the toilet
A University of British Columbia study found that daughters grow up with greater career aspirations when their dads share more of the domestic workload.
Leaving the house with a young child can resemble something like a military expedition as you load up with nappies, extra clothing and feeding gear. Regardless of the destination, always take some toys and games. Never underestimate your toddler’s limited attention span – pack whatever will keep your kid amused and engaged on a long journey or when out at a pub or restaurant.
Expect the unexpected
Foster a love for learning
Encourage your child’s natural curiosity by providing opportunities for learning and exploration. Take them to a foreign country where they have to order their dinner, or where you all have to read a map to get around – your kid will quickly learn that they can handle much more than they realise.
Let them mess up
“Teach your child the value of independence by allowing them to make choices and learn from their mistakes,” Levey says. “This helps build their self-confidence and decision-making skills, preparing them for adulthood.”
Keep a distance
Resist the urge to be the “cool” dad by getting all matey and informal with your teenage kid’s friends. They’ll find it odd, your child will hate it and it’ll blur the boundaries when it comes to having to ban them from your house for guzzling your booze.
Do “dad jokes”
What do you call a small mother? A minimum! “Bad jokes are a wonderful kind of teasing,” says Mr Clay Nichols, co-creator of US father’s advice channel DadLabs. “We’re playing with the expectations that our kids have of us old people. The best possible result is my teenage daughter trying to conceal a smile.”