“Among the principal social issues of our time is the flight of fathers from their children’s lives,” declared Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 1999 general conference (“The Hands of the Fathers,” Ensign, May 1999, 15).
In my work as a family life educator, I have seen problems and challenges in people’s lives that confirm Elder Holland’s statement. Children desire their fathers’ attention and interest, and my experience and research have made it clear to me that they need individual time and interaction with their fathers—or, where that is not possible, with a caring adult male. For instance, some of my work has been with father-absent children and finding adult volunteers to spend several hours of one-on-one time each week. I found that children who were seen regularly by an adult friend often made dramatic improvements in their school performance, family relationships, and behavior in the community.
I have also come to know that a father’s psychological or emotional absence can be just as hurtful to a child as his physical absence. Being aware of these things, and seeing the size and complexity of my own family growing, I felt I needed to schedule regular time with each of my children. Therefore, for several years while my children were growing up I made it a practice to take a different child each Saturday for a couple of hours and do something with him or her. Among other things, we went swimming, shopped at the hardware store, or visited the library.
The rewards of these times together were numerous. I learned through these experiences to see each of my children as individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses. Also, we discussed problems and concerns that might not have surfaced in other settings. But most of all, I learned to like each child as a friend, a quality of the father-child relationship that can be difficult to foster in the normal routine of life in a large family. Spending time alone with a child presents a great opportunity for a father to develop or cement a close, personal friendship.
So how can fathers go about setting up their own special times—they don’t necessarily have to be on Saturday—with their children? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Spend time with your child. I once read a study of 9- to 13-year-old children and their parents which showed that while 80 percent of the children wanted to spend more time with their parents, less than half of the parents enjoyed doing entertainment-type things with their children. This was especially true of the fathers.
I remember an occasion when an acquaintance of mine was complaining about his busy schedule. Between business activities and Church callings he had little time for his family. When I suggested some ways he could spend more time with his wife and children, he made a revealing comment. In effect he said he did not know what to say to his kids when he was with them and felt uncomfortable being with them for any extended period. He admitted this was one reason he allowed business and Church affairs to fill almost every evening.
How can this obstacle be overcome? If you want to enjoy doing things with your children, begin with the attitude that you will enjoy yourself. Then as you make the effort to regularly spend time with each child, before long you will likely find that the experience is enjoyable and that you have plenty to talk about.
2. Plan. In our family I tried to have a father’s interview with each child every fast Sunday afternoon. Among the issues we discussed was what to do on our Saturdays together that month. We would usually discuss two or three possible activities. The younger children enjoyed making a drawing of what we planned to do. Planning our time together in this way got us excited about the upcoming activities, which also helped make our interviews positive, relationship-strengthening experiences.
3. Do what both of you want to do. When choosing an activity, it is best to choose something both you and your child will enjoy. The types of activities can vary considerably. They seldom need to cost much. One of my children’s favorite Saturday activities was to go to my office, sit at my desk, write on scratch paper, and just look at everything. Other things that cost nothing or very little are biking, hiking, swimming, and going to a museum. The idea is to have fun together, to enjoy each other’s company, and to learn about each other.
Sometimes your child may want to do something you are not interested in, and at such times it is a good idea to go along with the choice (within reason, of course). The important consideration here is that you happily do what your children select because you care about them. If you do it grudgingly and consider it wasted time, you will defeat the whole purpose of the activity. Sometimes it may be appropriate to agree to do something your child wants but ask that next time you do something you want. This may not only help you enjoy yourself more but also teach your child about taking turns.
4. Follow through. Several years ago I was called to work with a Mutual-age group of boys. I found that one of my biggest obstacles to establishing rapport with those boys was their perception that adults do not follow through with plans. Unfortunately they had had a couple of leaders in a row who had promised activities and then not followed through. It took me several months of having activities to convince them I would not cancel at the last minute.
Children are resilient, but they can be let down or disappointed only so many times before they will no longer trust an unreliable adult. Many things—often very legitimate things—come up that could interfere with the time you have arranged to spend with your child. The best general rule is not to allow anything to interfere. As with a lot of general guidelines, however, exceptions will likely arise. When they do, we need to ask ourselves which activity is more important, both right now and in the long run. And, of course, we need to seek the guidance of the Spirit in the decision and be willing to be flexible about our schedules where possible.
5. Give your children your full attention. I remember that when my daughter was a teenager she seemed to really enjoy getting me alone and just talking. Occasionally I caught myself listening to the song on the car radio more than to her, and I had to remind myself why I was with her. If she wanted to talk to me, I needed to turn down the radio and listen—really listen.
One time a teenager I taught in church came to me with a personal problem. He had good parents, and I asked him why he did not go to them. His answer was that he had tried, but before he could explain how he felt they had given him three answers to his problem. He needed understanding more than he needed advice.
6. Show you care. During time alone with your child, you can show you care not only by listening but also by telling the child, “I love you.” Men in our society often have trouble doing this. Some fathers are afraid they will get emotional (and possibly tearful) when expressing love to their children and will thereby lose their children’s respect. This fear is unfounded. During His visit to ancient America, Jesus Himself wept after blessing the little children (see 3 Ne. 17:21–22). The sharing of genuine feelings can strengthen relationships.
Showing you care is also demonstrated nonverbally by such things as maintaining eye contact, smiling, and showing affection, such as giving a hug or a pat on the shoulder. These nonverbal cues confirm to the child the truth of the verbal message “I love you.”
The efforts we make to give our children individual attention can bring immediate as well as long-term blessings. I remember one occasion several years ago when my children were telling me what they would miss if they did not have a mother. I decided to take the opportunity to see what they might miss about me. “If you didn’t have a dad, what would you miss?” I asked. I expected them to mention things like money, clothes, or perhaps the presents I brought them after a business trip. Instead, without hesitation eight-year-old Nicholle said, “We’d miss our Saturdays!” The others agreed.
What a pleasant shock! Of all the things they might have mentioned, the one they thought of first was the few hours each Saturday I spent alone with each of them. If ever I had needed a testimony of the fact that a child needs individual time with his or her dad, I had it now.
In his April 1999 conference address, Elder Holland reflected, “As a father, I wonder if I and all other fathers could do more to build a sweeter, stronger relationship with our sons and daughters” (Ensign, May 1999, 15). Spending individual time with our sons and daughters is one thing we can do to help build a relationship that will last into the eternities.
“My children taught me a great lesson one day. We had moved from California to New York where I had accepted an employment opportunity and we were in the process of finding a new home. We started close to the city, but each day that passed we would move further out to find a home more suited to our needs. In Connecticut we found just the one. It was a beautiful home nestled in New England’s radiant forests. We were all pleased with the selection. The final test before making an offer for purchase was to ride the train into New York to check out the commuting time. I made the trip and was very discouraged. The trip required an hour and a half each way. I returned to the motel where my family was waiting for me and gave them the choice of having a father or this new home. Much to my surprise, they said, ‘We will take the home. You are not around much anyway.’
“The shock of that statement was overwhelming to me. If that statement was true, I needed to repent fast. My children deserved a father. Is it not our obligation as fathers to spend as much time as possible with our children, to teach them honesty, industry, and morality?”
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Father—Your Role, Your Responsibility,” Ensign, Nov. 1977, 63.