Essential Fathering Skills All Dads Can Master and All Kids Need

What do the world's best Dads have in common? What do they know, do, represent and share that makes them so effective as dads?

Let's make sure we know the answers year-round, long after Father's Day. After all, it's universally true and enduringly important for moms and dads to know the fathering skills dads can master to:

* Enhance relationships with their children. It's never too late to bring about better communication and more compassion between father and child.

* Teach and mentor the next generation.

* Be a good fathering role model and help prepare children for their own adult lives and parenting.

I discovered my life's work while first teaching fathers in prison how to become great dads. That was a challenge. Incarcerated dads obviously spend significant time away from their children. And those dads, until rehabilitated, are usually less-than-ideal role models because of their background of criminal activity. Furthermore, at least 85 percent of youths now in prison had absent fathers themselves. 63 percent of youth suicides and 71 percent of teen pregnancies happen in families where the father is absent or detached.

Loving, attentive, engaged fathers have the best chance of preventing their children from going down the wrong path. Studies consistently reveal that children (of every age) need the love and guidance of BOTH parents -- no matter who lives with whom - but that dads play a particularly influential role. Bad dads wound children while good dads reinforce, strengthen, shape, guide and encourage their sons and daughters.


For generations, our society has underestimated a father's lifelong impact, influence, and importance. While mothers rightfully deserve kudos for raising, nurturing, comforting and teaching children, Dr. Kyle Pruett of Yale University Medical School has demonstrated that Father Nurture is just as important as Mother Nurture! Kids raised without a dad in the picture (or with an unskilled or disengaged dad) suffer.

Some important and encouraging words for anyone reading this before or after Father's Day:

* You can become a great dad, even if you did not have one yourself. You can start a new family tradition by being a caring, loving father.

* Millions of men still have father wounds, wishing they had better fathers when they were growing up. I personally know what it's like to be a deeply wounded son.

* Even very busy and divorced dads can connect meaningfully with their kids. No amount of career climbing can ever replace the importance of bonding with your children. You can put your sons and daughters FIRST and still be successful at your job and as a provider. You can be a positive and constant influence on your children, even if you are frequently on the road or divorced and living elsewhere.

For 23 years I was a pastor. I have a Seminary Masters degree. I served fathers in prison for six years. And for more than two decades I've coached hundreds of men, from imprisoned fathers in jumpsuits to successful executives in business suits, how to heal father wounds and become great dads. I provide a blueprint for fathers to enhance relationships with their kids and to heal their father wounds.


Nothing builds a child's self-esteem more than consistent and meaningful affirmations from his/her parents. As a dad, you should look for things to affirm, big and small. Catch your kids doing something right and enthusiastically praise them for it. TRY to give each child a big head. Seriously! You can talk about the importance of humility later.

And know this: You shape overall character by instilling self-confidence. What our kids believe we believe about them becomes their belief about themselves. Kids need far more praise than they do correction or criticism.

Good dads know the importance of:

* Saying "I'm proud of you" and "I'll love you no matter what."

* Giving advice with a smile instead of a scowl.

* Recalling and vividly re-telling favorite family memories/stories with their children.

* Laughing about funny things you have done together or which your children have done.

* A hug. It's not "just a hug" when it comes from Dad.

And Dads, let's not reserve our praise for our sons though it might seem easier to relate to guys because we are one. Our daughters are just as hungry for our affirmation. And don't limit your praise of your daughter to her physical beauty.


Do you actively engage in conversations with your children? Don't ignore them! Get to know their likes, dislikes, needs, joys, worries and dreams. Here are some great questions to ask your kids to generate conversations:

* What's your current favorite meal? Restaurant? Book? Movie?

* If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?

* Who are your top three heroes?

* What would you do if you had loads of money?

* When did you have the most fun, ever?

OR -- for more deeper and reflective discussions:

* What makes you really angry? Or embarrassed? Or stressed?

* If you could do three things to change the world, what would they be?

* What five things are you most thankful for?

* What makes you the happiest? Or saddest?

* What was your greatest achievement in the last year?

* What do we, your parents (or me as your dad), do that "bugs" you the most?

* What do you like most about the way your parents are raising you?

When talking with any child of any age, show respect and adopt an open posture. Maintain good eye contact and stay relaxed as you listen. Learn to read your child's nonverbal behavior. Watch his/her posture, body movements and gestures. And be sure to give your child nonverbal feedback (nodding, widening eyes, raised eyebrows). Such signals encourage your children to keep explaining their feelings in greater detail. Let them know that you're interested and intrigued, which helps them feel loved and listened to. Huge gains!

Start by bonding with your children even BEFORE they can talk. Hold your babies. Bathe them. Feed and talk to them. Change diapers. Sing to them and walk with them.


When I discipline my children I want them to feel bad about their behavior but still feel good about themselves. The worst way to dole out discipline is to shame the child by too closely identifying that bad behavior with the child. There is a great difference between disapproving of a behavior or choice your children make and still accepting them. I regularly say to my boys in a calm voice when I am disciplining them "Son, what you did was wrong, and that's why I am disciplining you. It does not change or affect in any way my deep and lasting love for you. In fact, it's because I love you so much and hope so much for your future that I am disciplining you now."


Loving your children is actually part of learning how to be a good father to yourself! By being the father your children need you to be, you become the father you wish you had. That helps heal "father wounds" you still hold. If your relationship with your own father was lacking, you can experience healing by offering affection, attention, affirmation and approval to YOUR children!

As a dad, your children watch your life and emulate you--think of them as your most discerning audience. Boys will especially "study" you on what it looks like to be a man and how to rightfully treat women, male friends, colleagues and even competitors. Girls will study you to know what to look for in a man and how men should treat her.


If a married man wants to be a highly effective father, one important aspect of his fathering and loving his children will actually be his relationship with his wife -- his children's mother. For married men, being a good husband is a very big part of being a great dad. For divorced dads, treating your children's mother with kindness and respect is very important. Wherever the children live, they'll flourish best when both parents are loving, nurturing and committed to them and their well-being.


Remember, it takes time to build a great relationship with your kids. LOTS of time creating closeness. And typically it involves many missteps along the way. Don't feel discouraged or disheartened because you regret decisions you've made in your fathering, or because you no longer live full time with your kids, or because you feel too wounded yourself to provide much for your children. Love covers a multitude of transgressions! Create in your mind your best self as a dad. Then write a personal "great dad" purpose statement and say it daily to yourself. Think of creative ways to live your purpose statement each day in some way and develop fathering goals you can attain. I have trained myself to ask two questions in any given moment of fathering:

- Is this (activity, decision, behavior, idea) building or injuring my relationship with my children?

- How can I develop and shape good strong character in my kids?

Dads can also ask themselves:

* How do I want my kids to remember me as a dad?

* When considering my career and my family life ... if I neglect one over the other, which will I regret the most when I'm older?

* When all is said and done, how will I define success as a man and as a father?


Dads, we can overcome the mistake of indirect fathering by intentionally affirming our children with words and by showing them loving, physical affection and attention. You can BLESS your children by telling them how glad you are to be their dad. Do this even if your dad never told you that he loved and appreciated you. Make the most of special moments in your child's life by adding your blessing to that moment. By blessing your children, you give them the freedom to engage in and enjoy the most important relationships they will ever have: their marriage and their own children.


I invite you to learn more about my Great Dad Challenge -- which is transforming Fathers into DADS year-round. Check it out on my website. Help turn around the history of disengaged or negative fathering by shaping and guiding your own children in positive, affirming ways. Remember, no one else can or ever will take your place of honor and influence. Great dads shape great kids. Be a great dad today!

Keith Zafren, founder of The Great Dads Project, dedicates his life to teaching everyday fathers to become great dads for a lifetime. His new book is "HOW TO BE A GREAT DAD -- NO MATTER WHAT KIND OF FATHER YOU HAD." Contact:;

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