Plan ahead. One of the most important things you can do as a dad is the program quality and quantity time into your schedule and make it a priority. Before you leave for work on Monday morning, you and your partner should have planned out the week and know what you are going to do with the children each night after work. In his book First Things First, Dr. Stephen Covey relates the following story:
One day this expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration I'm sure those students will never forget. After I share it with you, you'll never forget it either.
As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in the class said, "Yes." Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.
Then he smiled and asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"
"No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?"
One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!"
"No," the speaker replied, "that's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."
Make space for the kids in your activities. One of the men I most admire served for 12 years as a busy political figure, while his children were in their growing up years. He and I ran the same circles for many of those years, and I saw him in lots of meetings and at events in the evenings and on weekends. Invariably, at almost every event and meeting, he had one of his children with him. They were not always excited to be there, but he introduced them to everyone (including, at one point, two Presidents of the United States) and some of his children's favorite memories are of these events and meetings. So, if you are headed the hardware store, bring a child along. If you are working in the yard, invite one or more of the kids to work with you.
Focus on positive activities. Whatever activity in which you participate with your children, make it a positive one whenever possible. As the kids work with you, teach them and then praise them when they do well. If you are out on a date, make the dinner something they enjoy. If you are driving to soccer practice or piano lessons, don't just listen to the radio or talk on the cell phone. Chat with your kids.
Simplify and recognize the stages of life. Life has a cycle to it. At some times in your life, some things are possible while at other times, the same things are not possible. During the years when children are young, you may have to be willing to sacrifice a spotless house or a few golf games in order to have quality time with the children. As they get older, a cleaner house and a bit more golf, especially with an older child, become more feasible. Sacrificing some favorite hobbies in the early years, and recognizing that the counters might not always be cleared off when company comes, will help you prioritize time with the kids.
Organize the must-do's. Even after simplifying, every family has the must-do's like dishes, laundry, vacuuming, fixing cars and raking leaves. A little advanced planning on things like household chores can really free up your time. One dad I know has a little notebook with rings and punched index cards inside. He has a divider for each day of the week, and then has a card with each household must-do on it. Then during the day, he tackles each of the cards in order. If he runs out of time before he runs out of cards, he moves the card to another divider and gets it planned for another day. As he worked the plan, he discovered that he could generally get it all done. And when possible, he involved the kids in the work. And by making the must-do's fun (like singing silly songs or telling fun stories), then the kids didn't mind helping out.
Be fully present when you are home. Often, when dad gets home, he gets distracted with other activities and demands. Or, sometimes, hobbies or the computer get in the way. In order to have quality time, you have to put those things aside and focus on the family. And watching television together usually does not constitute quality time unless you are talking about what you see and creating some teaching moments.
Ask the important question. If you want to find out what your family sees as quality time, ask the key question: "If there was one thing we could do together today (or tomorrow), what would it be?" Then listen and make it work for them.
The investment of time in your children pays perhaps greater dividends in the long run than almost any other thing in which you can invest your time. Positive relationships now and in the future will bear real fruit in your life and in the lives of your children. So create enough quantity time and focus your efforts on making that time quality time, and you can find real joy in your fathering role.