The bond between mother and child gets a lot of attention, but what about the ties between fathers and their children? Research out of Pennsylvania State University and the University of California has shown that father-child interactions are central to everything from a child’s ability to regulate emotionally to the capacity to maintain strong, fulfilling social relationships later in life. Here, simple ways for dads to get closer to their sons and daughters.
Show Your Love
Mothers and fathers provide different kinds of physical stimulation and comfort, and those differences help kids stretch their capacities both emotionally and physically. But physical connection isn’t just about wrestling on the floor or playing catch; it’s about showing your child how much you care. Hugs and kisses for younger kids, arm around the shoulder or pat on the back for older ones — physical contact make kids feel loved. “Saying I love you is not enough,” says child psychologist Steven Richfield, author of The Parent Coach: A New Approach to Parenting in Today’s Society. “Demonstrating that in heartfelt ways — with tangible physical displays of affection — is very important.”
Engaging in a ritualized activity with your child day after day, month after month, lets your child feel loved and special. Ethan Barker of Farmington, Mich., plays a pretend game he calls “Let’s Go” with his daughter most nights before he puts her to bed. “She became interested in the globe in her room, and so we made up a game where we spin it and pretend we are going to go wherever our finger points when the globe stops spinning,” he says. “We have a make-believe suitcase, and talk about what we’d like to bring and what we might do when we get there. She really gets excited about it each night, and so do I.”
Find Your Inner Child
“Fathers can have closer relationships with their kids if they’re willing to regress in the service of the relationship,” says Dr. Richfield. “They need to have a real capacity to enter the child’s world.” With younger kids that may mean playing make-believe or singing silly songs; with older ones it might be playing video games or watching music videos. It’s not enough to stand back and watch; you need to get involved in whatever’s capturing your child’s attention and imagination.
Hit the Books
While mothers purchase upwards of 90 percent of the parenting literature, fathers could benefit from some book learning as well. “You have to do a little reading. I think fathers are in the dark, especially during the first six or so years,” says Dr. Richfield. “You have to become educated to develop a bond with your child. Learning what boys and girls need at any given age — and these needs are pretty much the same for both sexes when they’re young — helps fathers become closer to their kids. To be able to give them what they desire, you really have to know about their world.”