by John Hoffman
“Children don’t come with a set of instructions.”
It’s the oldest parenting cliché in the world.
And, like most clichés it’s partly true. But even if kids did come with a set of instructions, being a parent is an ongoing learning journey. What are the most important things for dads to learn? Obviously, you need to learn how to look after kids. But that kind of information is easy to find. I want to talk about the big picture. What are the most important core abilities that help men be good parents? I’ve got four things for you to think about.
Learn to understand your individual child and what that child needs.
We know a lot about child development and parenting techniques these days – more than ever before. However, general knowledge about parenting and child development is only useful if it applies to your kid. And kids are all different. What can be generally true about what is good for, or what works with, most kids, may not true for your kid. It’s a bit like nutrition. We know what foods are most nutritious. But even the healthiest foods aren’t necessarily good for everyone. Some people can’t digest them, and some are sensitive to certain components in some foods.
It’s the same with children. They have different personalities, abilities, weaknesses, sensitivities and stress points. They don’t all respond to the world and their parents in the same way. A discipline technique, a tone of voice, a way of playing, a way of hugging, a way of teaching that might work for most children, won’t necessarily be right for every child.
That’s why I think a father’s (or mother’s) most important learning job is to know and understand who his child is and what that child needs. Base your parenting on your child’s needs rather than any preconceived beliefs you might have about raising children. I’m not saying throw your beliefs and knowledge out the window. I’m just saying it’s more important to understand your kid than it is to try to use any given parenting strategy.
How do you do this? It starts with a relationship. So hang out with your children, go into their world and share it with them. Talk to them, play with them, ask them questions. Tune into what stresses them, (which could be different from what stresses other kids). This is key because, stress, and how kids react to it, has a big influence on their development and learning.
Bottom line: Whatever else happens on your parenting journey, keep trying to connect and reconnect with your child. And remember that kids and their needs will continually change as they grow.
Learn how to support your partner and work as a team.
If there is one single thing that helps people be their best as moms and dads it’s feeling supported. Obviously, your partner is the key person you need to support and be supported by. Getting support starts with giving it. I don’t care if your parenting partner is a man, a woman, an ex-spouse or more than one person. If you support that person (or people) your child will be better off for two reasons. One is that your support helps make that person a better parent. Secondly, you will be more likely to be supported yourself, and that makes you a better parent.
Learn how to handle the stress that goes with parenting
The ability to handle stress, and perhaps even more important, recover from stress, is one of the most important life and parenting skills. Think about it. Don’t you think and act better when you are feeling good inside? And don’t you do most things a little worse when you are stressed out? So pay attention to your stress. If you’re getting stressed out a lot, then your stress response system is trying to tell you something.
Stress management starts with looking after yourself – getting enough rest and exercise, eating well, avoiding overuse of alcohol and drugs, making time for things you enjoy, and getting social support. It also involves learning how to reduce stress when you can. Stress management is a big topic, well worth learning about.
For more information about stress management check out www.StressStrategies.ca, a self-help, online stress management tool developed by the Psychology Foundation of Canada.
Learn when and how to ask for help
All parents need help and support. That’s where the old African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” comes from. Children were never meant to be the sole responsibility of one person or one couple. That’s not a slam against single parents. It just means make sure you get the help and support you need. Research shows that parents parent better when they feel supported by their family, friends and community.
If you can learn how to do these things – and keep learning as you go along – chances are you’ll be a pretty good dad.