There is plenty of research to suggest that parents need to be present at the rites of passage in a child's life - those times when children are crossing a threshold into a new element of life. But those important moments happen many times throughout the growing-up years; the key for a father is recognizing them and then being present to help guide his child as they grow.
So what are these crossroads in a child's life and when does a dad need most to be present for these critical moments?
Birthdays. I think we all recognize that each birthday is an important milestone in a child's life. We often track their progress and measure their development at birthday time. And a birthday is a special opportunity to communicate how much you value your child. Lots of families create traditions around birthdays that remind children of their strengths and create opportunities to serve. In our family, for example, after blowing out the birthday candles, each family member lights a candle in turn and then answers three questions:
- What do I like about you?
- What do I wish for you this year?
- What will I do for you?
Traditions like these involving a special recognition at a birthday make for fun memories and a reminder of that child's worth. Making time to be home on birthdays creates an opportunity to show love.
Big Events. Another important crossroad is when a child is involved in a big event where he or she performs or receives recognition. These events can include the "Big Game" for a sporting event, the piano recital, the school awards assembly, the church youth recognition night and other such events. It has always been impressive to me as I have watched the Winter or Summer Olympic Games how many fathers and mothers are present with their sons or daughters as they compete at this level. Friends and siblings are important at these times, but parents are absolutely critical. Whatever it takes, be there for the big events.
First and Last Days of School. A critical rite of passage each year is when school begins and ends. These are truly crossroad moments. Particularly when moving from elementary school to middle school and then to high schools, these are times that are stressful, uncertain and sometimes a bit melancholy for your children. Being there to help them find their classes, to figure our P.E. for the first time, and to understand educational expectations is an important role for a dad. Go to Back to School night with them and meet the teachers. Get involved in the PTA and maybe even volunteer at school. These academic and social crossroads are important ones and often ones where children make important decisions about commitment, friends and activities. Your influence is needed.
Homework Moments. On a related note, being available to help with homework at critical moments is also important for dads. Preparing for a science fair project, helping write or proofread the term papers and studying for a test at school or for a college entrance exam are all moments when a father's help is appreciated. A child's self-image can be enhanced when dad teaches the child how to succeed at school and in life.
Sleepovers and Campouts. The first few times your child sleeps other than at home in the same place as his or her parents represent other crossroads. When they are with their friends up late without much supervision, lots of positive and negative things can happen. Preparing your child for their first few nights away from you is also an important fathering role. Reminding them about respect, honor and keeping their commitments is just as important as making sure they have fun. Being there to send them off to the sleepover or the campout and welcoming them home at the end is a priceless opportunity.
Learning About Sex. Maybe it is just too easy to leave all that to the kids' mom. I don't know why some dads are intimidated about helping their children learn about sex. But candidly, it is one of the most important crossroads. The mechanics of sex are important, but can also be learned in a variety of ways. Teaching the values associated with sex - like modesty, intimacy, respect and self-worth - cannot be learned in any better way than in a personal and private conversation with you. A rite of passage to be sure, teaching your children about sex and its implications in life is a moment that you simply can't miss or delegate.
Dating. As children reach their teenage years, the intensity of their interest in the opposite sex grows exponentially. With our kids, it was almost an overnight thing to move from casual interest to intense crushes. So as your children approach that time and especially as they approach their first real date, dads need to be there. For your sons, it is critical to reinforce values like respect, kindness, and self-control. As your daughters start to date, be there when the young man arrives and remind him that he is spending time with someone precious to you and that he is accountable for his behavior. And in every case, make sure your teens know curfews, what is expected by both sets of parents, and how to handle a situation that might get out of control.
Being there at these important crossroads in a child's life are irreplaceable opportunities. Observing their progress, planning ahead and thinking in advance about how to handle these critical moments in their lives will help you say and do just the right things to help instill important values and prepare them for the rest of their lives.