Dear Mr. Dad: This may sound a little stupid, but I'm not sure how to be a more involved dad. I work a lot and my wife is a stay-at-home mom. She seems to have everything under control all the time, and there doesn't seem to be much of a role for me. What can I do to be a better dad?
A: That's not stupid at all. A lot of guys are faced with the same issues. Here are some strategies you can use to become the dad you want to be:
Take the initiative. If you don't, you'll never be able to assume the child-rearing role you want – and your children deserve. Don't assume that your partner magically knows more than you do. Whatever she knowledge she has about raising kids, she learned by doing – just like anything else. And the way you're going to get better is by doing things, too. It's okay if you make mistakes. In fact, that's the best way to learn. And it's okay to ask her for help once in a while, if you're feeling completely lost. But you need to figure out what works for you.
Dad up. Men and women have different ways of interacting with their children. Men tend to stress physical and high-energy activities; women, more social and emotional ones. But don't let anyone tell you that safely wrestling, bouncing on the bed, or other "guy things" are somehow not as important as the "girl things" your partner may do (or want you to do). The rough-and-tumble of father play also teaches valuable lessons about regulating emotions such as excitement and arousal. I've talked about the benefits of involved fatherhood a lot, but they always bear repeating: Children with physically active dads do better in school, are more social, and are less likely to get involved in drugs or alcohol or criminal behavior than children whose dads aren't as involved.
Don't forget the emotional side. Physical interaction is undoubtedly an important part of the father-child relationship, but being emotionally available and involved is critical, too. As John Gottman, author of "The Heart of Parenting" suggests, "Men must allow themselves to be aware of their feelings so they can empathize with their children. Then they must take whatever steps necessary to make themselves available to their kids."
Be available more than on weekends. To be an effective father, you've got to get involved in the day-to-day decisions that affect your kids. Leaving everything to your wife means that you'll miss out on the small pieces that give meaning to a child's life. Without getting involved part in the everyday chores, routines, and activities that make up childhood, you're not going to know your children with the kind of intimacy and nuance that are critical to being a sensitive father.
Respect your partner. Being an involved father means recognizing all of the ways in which your partner keeps the family running and respecting the decisions she makes when you're not able to be there. Try to develop a system to plan family activities together. As your children mature, let them take part in the planning process as well.
Always communicate. If you don't like the status quo, let your wife know. If she at first seems reluctant to share the role of child nurturer with you, don't take it too personally. Give her time to learn that you're serious about wanting to participate more and that you're competent and sincerely motivated be an engaged parent.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)