“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was,” Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton penned in a 1972 New Year’s Day reflection.
One in five American children don’t live under the same roof as their father, most often as a result of divorce or because a child’s parents were never married. For teen parents particularly, the challenge of creating a life in which mom and dad raise children together is one in which very few succeed.
Sexton’s words express both a reality and challenge for millions of fathers who, for whatever reason, do not live under the same roof as their children.
While there are many perspectives on what or who is to blame for this circumstance that social workers generically refer to as “nonresidential fathers,” the men who find themselves living apart from their children face a daunting task of negotiating the role that they will play in their lives. Their success will not only be one of the most important contributions they will make to their childrens’ lives, but to their own as well.
President Barack Obama grew up without his father at home. In his case, grandparents stepped in to provide guidance, support and encouragement. Similarly, Ed Bradley, the famous CBSTV 60 Minutes co-editor only saw his father during the summertime, living with his mother and attending Catholic schools during the school year.
For every story of a Barack Obama or Ed Bradley, there are far more that prove it is very difficult on children that come from single-parent homes. In recent testimony to the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported that children raised in a household without the father present were five times more likely to live in poverty than a child with both parents.
While research on the success of relationship education does offer encouragement for stemming the tide of marital breakdown that separates many dads from their children, that will do little for the millions of fathers and their children who are already living apart.
In a recent speech, President Obama echoed sentiments he has often expressed: “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it’s the courage to raise one….”
If you’re living apart from your children, consider how you want them to one day remember you. What stories will they tell their own children in the future about growing up with you as their father? How will their feelings toward you, and their experiences with you, shape their lives?
Great parenting, whether living together or apart, doesn’t happen by accident or chance. Navigating responsible fatherhood, which is comprised of playing a consistent, positive role in your child’s life, being a role model they can look up to, and sharing experiences and lessons that will make a lasting contribution to their lives, begins with good will and intentional effort. Once initiated, however, it has to be built through consistent action and with skills that that very few “nonresidential fathers” picked up from their own dads, but these skills can be learned. You can start by practicing a few good habits.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers six particularly important tips for dads who live apart from their sons and daughters:
- Keep your promises.
- Respect the mother.
- Don’t be a “Disneyland Dad” and just do fun activities.
- Stay in contact between visits.
- Don’t be soft on your kids.
- Be financially responsible and pay your child support.
In addition to those six habits, the PAIRS Foundation offers a few ideas that have also been shown to make a lasting difference in effective parenting. As an industry leader in relationship and marriage education for more than a quarter century, PAIRS has been helping dads learn skills for improving communication, understanding emotions in themselves and others, and dealing with differences in ways that strengthen family connections. Classes are offered online and in-person at locations nationwide.
One of the most useful skills taught in PAIRS classes is called the Daily Temperature Reading. Known as the DTR, this five step process begins with a commitment to set aside time on a regular basis to water the garden of the relationships that matter most in your life. It can be particularly helpful to fathers struggling to build and maintain relationships with children who live apart. Let them know that you want to do this with them because you want to stay connected, and because you love them.
The five steps are:
Step 1: Appreciations
Tell your son or daughter things you appreciate about them specifically. It must be sincere and specific. You can invite them to reciprocate (albeit with patience to allow youngsters to see you model the exercise consistently). For example, “I appreciate all the time you put into studying for your test.” “I appreciate that you take time to listen to your friends when they need someone to talk to and how they know they can count on you for that.” “I appreciate you walking your sister home from school and talking to her about her day at school.” After a while, you’ll likely notice that your children become comfortable expressing their appreciations to you too. Regularly sharing appreciations boosts self-esteem, confidence, self-worth, and health while making youngsters less vulnerable to negative peer pressures.
Step 2: New Information
Share something that’s new in your life and invite your child or children to let you know what’s new in their own. It might be about a conversation, something at school or work, a story or show on television, or something you’ve been thinking about. Confiding is the lifeblood of intimacy. In the beginning, there may be lots of new information. Once you’ve done the DTR regularly, it will take just a few moments to stay up-to-date on a daily basis. Be sure that when others are sharing what’s new in their life that you listen in a way that encourages them to share more. Interrupting, interjecting, criticizing, or anything similar often leads others to stop confiding.
Step 3: Puzzles
If you’re wondering about something involving your child, ask the question. Be sure to keep your puzzles to issues directly involving your relationship with your child so that you don’t – accidentally or on purpose – put your son or daughter in a position where your conversations could hurt their relationship with their other parent. You likewise do not want to involve them in conflicts that should be dealt with directly by adults. A puzzle might be similar to one of the following statements: “I’m wondering what you’d like to do on Saturday when we spend the day together,” or, “I want to make sure we get to talk to each other at least once a day and I am wondering what’s the best way to make sure that happens,” or, “I’m wondering about the friends you went to the movies with on Friday and would like to know more about them.” Your children should be encouraged to ask you – directly – anything they’re wondering about as well. While there’s not always an answer to a puzzle, checking things out with each other helps avoid assumptions and misunderstandings.
Step 4: Concerns with Recommendations
When something’s bothering you, it’s important to say what it is (always focus on a specific behavior), how it makes you feel, and what you want instead without attacking, blaming, judging or criticizing. You need to say it directly to the person with whom you have the concern. For example, “When you didn’t call me last night or answer the phone when I called you, I felt sad, hurt, and afraid that something might have happened to you. What I want instead is that once we agree we’re going to talk on the phone, if you can’t make it, you call me if something comes up to let me know.” Concerns and even complaints are a natural part of any close relationship. Expressing them in the context of a DTR, in a way that focuses on the behavior, includes feelings, and asks for what you want instead, helps create stronger relationships.
Step 5: Wishes, Hopes, Dreams
You should never end the DTR with Concerns or Complaints, no matter how well intended. Wishes, Hopes, Dreams, the final step of the DTR, is a chance to share whatever is present in your thoughts on a particular day. It might be something like the following: “I really hope I see that new movie this weekend,” or, “I’d love to go out for pizza together on Saturday,” or, “I hope I get the job I applied for,” or, “I’m wishing we can go on a vacation together this winter.” Be sure to encourage your children to regularly share their wishes, hopes and dreams with you too. It will help you learn much more about each other, and if experience is any indicator, it should also create opportunities to help make dreams come true.