Dear Mr. Dad: I'm about to become a dad for the first time. My dad died when I was young, so I didn't have a good role model. How can I be the best father for my new baby?
A: You already took the first step – asking for advice. Here are ten more.
– Be active. If you don't take the initiative, you'll never be able to assume the child-rearing responsibilities you really want and your children deserve.
– Practice. Don't assume that your partner magically knows more than you do. Whatever she knows about raising kids, she learned on the job. And the way you're going to get better is by doing things, too. Never miss an opportunity to change a diaper or sooth your crying baby. Every interaction – especially the most mundane ones – will make you a better dad.
– Take pride in being a dad. 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 in any way less 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 empathy and regulating emotions. Babies with physically active dads do achieve physical and cognitive milestones better, are more social, and better problem solvers.
– Be emotionally available. 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 a partner, not a helper. I talked about this a few weeks ago with regard to women needing to stop asking for help. If you want to be a truly involved dad, you need to see what you do in the home and with your children as fathering not helping.
– Be available more than on weekends. To be an effective father, get involved in the day-to-day decisions that affect your kids. Leaving everything to your partner means that you'll miss out on the little things that give meaning to a child's life.
– Respect your partner. Being an involved father means recognizing all the ways your partner keeps the family running, and respecting the decisions she makes when you're unavailable. Develop a system to plan family activities together, and as the kids grow, get them involved in the planning as well.
– Always communicate. If you don't like the way things are, let your partner know. If she seems reluctant to share the role of child nurturer with you, don't take it personally. Show her that you're serious about wanting to be an equal participant and that you're doing everything you can to build your competence.
– Know your rights. Have you checked with your HR department at work? Does your employer have any type of parenting leave programs? Are you covered by the federal program? A state or local one?
– Stay involved after separation or divorce. The majority of fathers don't get shared or joint custody of their children after their relationship with their child's mother ends, and too many of them slowly fade out of their children's lives. But even after a breakup, there are many ways dads can remain actively involved. The most critical is to stay in touch – in person or by phone or email. Make the time you spend with your kids meaningful, but don't try to buy their love. And never, ever badmouth your ex in front of the kids.
You'll find many more tips and advice on how to be a fantastic dad in my book, The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year. Happy Father's Day!
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)