The inaugural Dads for Life Conference drove home the power of a loving father-child relationship.
A few years ago, a study was conducted by the Johns Hopkins Medical School in the USA to find a common predictive factor for five major causes of death in the country, namely mental illness, hypertension, malignant tumors, coronary heart disease and suicide. After studying 1,377 graduates over a 30-year period, the researchers revealed the astonishing common thread—a lack of closeness to one’s father, stemming from the fact that a child who enjoys a close relationship with his or her father in a loving home will be better equipped to handle stress in adulthood.
Speaking at the sold-out Dads for Life Conference held at Orchard Hotel on May 14, renowned author and speaker Josh McDowell underscored the urgency for fathers to step up to their parenting responsibilities. “The greatest evil committed in America and almost every country in the world is not Iraq, Afghanistan or terrorism but the absence or non-involvement of fathers, period. That has caused more damage and destroyed more lives than terrorism ever will.”
His speech, peppered with humbling and personal anecdotes drawn from his own experience of being father to four children, was focused on developing transformational relationships with one’s children.
Firstly, a father needs to be there for his child, and be involved in his life. He recalled one afternoon when his 2-year-old son walked into his room as he was trying to finish writing a book. He sternly told his son, “Not now, I’m busy.” His wife Dottie later chastised him, saying, “You’re always going to be busy, you’ll always have books to finish and talks to give, but you won’t always have a 2-year-old who wants to sit on his daddy’s lap and ask him questions. If you spend time with your children now, they will spend time with you later. If you listen to your kids now, they will talk to you later. If you talk to them now, they will listen to you later.” Going further, he said, “Being available to children conveys to them the message that they are important, because kids judge how much you love them by the amount of time you spend with them. In fact, medical research has shown that the damage inflicted by giving children the silent treatment is tantamount to physical and sex abuse.”
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Fathers also need to take the initiative to step into their children’s world, and sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity. McDowell shared the story of finding ways to step into his then- 11-year-old son’s world, who was at the time very much into sports cars. So he wrote a letter to “all the expensive car people” and asked if he could take his son for a test ride in one of their cars. He received replies from every single company he wrote to. “In three hours, we drove USD$1.5 million worth of cars. My son has never forgotten that day until now.”
A father should also embrace his child’s uniqueness through affirmation and appreciation. “When we affirm the emotions of another, it tells them that they are authentic. When others are sad, don’t correct them or tell them what they should do, but identify with their feelings.” Instead of saying “Don’t let it get to you, say something like ‘That must have really hurt’, or ‘I’m so sorry that hurt you so badly.”
The expression of appreciation, on the other hand, says to a child that he is significant. He quoted from the book The One Minute Manager, saying that parents need to catch their child doing the right things and express appreciation before they catch and criticize them for doing the wrong things. In his own experience, he realized that the more he followed this order, the fewer times his children misbehaved.
He also exhorted the fathers to set reasonable boundaries for their children, because accountability conveys to a child that he has self-control, he is responsible, and that he is loved. He shared the example where his daughter excused herself from a party saying that she had to be home by ten, to which her friend replied that she wished she shared the same set of parents, as hers did not care what time she got home at all.
Another revelatory point he shared in his message was the importance of a loving relationship between a father and a mother, and that a child derives his sense of security from knowing that his father and mother love each other. “Research has shown that the number one fear among children nowadays in almost every nation and culture is that their parents will divorce.”
McDowell also challenged the fathers not to use oft-heard excuses like not having enough time or not being able to be the “perfect” father. “While you can never make up for lost time, it is never too late to start—even if your child is 40 years old.” Building on the hardwired need in every human for intimacy—“the capacity to be real with another person”, he said that showing affection to a child lets him know that he is loved. “Every child needs to prove to himself or herself that they are loved, and if they don’t get it from their parents, they will look elsewhere for it, and when they do, we parents have no right to stop them,” he warned. “What you enjoy with your kids as teenagers is what you sowed into them before they were 12.”
McDowell communicated to his audience that he spoke not from a life of ease, privilege or one made up of a bed of roses. In fact, from the time he was 6 years old till 13, he was severely sexually abused, and his father was the town alcoholic who would beat his mother into a bloody pulp. “If I can do it, you can do it. The difference is the amount of effort you are willing to put forth.” Even as he proudly told of how much he is enjoying his relationship with his now grown-up children, his voice lowered to a whisper as he said, “I worked hard for it. I worked so hard for it all, and I struggled with it.”
The other speaker for the day was New Zealander James Thomas, who focused on being a life coach to one’s child. He categorized the levels of authority fathers typically exercise into four groups, namely the sergeant major (overly authoritative), jellyfish (a pushover father), the absent father, and the parent-coach, which is the ideal kind. He stressed that appropriate boundaries increases freedom, illustrating his point with a balcony rail, which allows one to approach the edge without fear of tipping over. Still, boundaries need to change as children get older, or they will not develop good decision-making skills later on.
During the sharing session with a panel of fathers which included local actor Adrian Pang, Brian Richmond, DJ from Gold 90.5 FM, and Alfred Tan, Executive Director of the Singapore’s Children Society, one of the concerns most often voiced from the floor of 1,050 participants was how to guide their children to the correct path for their life, to which Pang said, “The key lies in exposing your children to as many different choices as possible at a young age, and they will naturally gravitate toward their passion.” The participants were also given a pledge card to write their personal commitment to their families in view of the upcoming National Family Celebrations on May 25.
Says Malik, father of a 12-year-old and a pair of 9-year-old twins, “The message that stuck with me most was that we need to catch the positive things our kids do before catching them for the wrong. Another participant, Chong Chin Hong, Vice-Principal of MacPherson Primary School says, “It’s high time fathers took up their position as the head of the family in today’s society, because I think a lot of fathers, myself included, have been absent from the family.” The father of two teenagers also pledged “to love and listen to my wife, and to spend more time with my family and be there for them.”
The Dads for Life Conference is an initiative of the National Family Council, and supported by its work group, the Fathers Action Network.
FAN aims to inspire all fathers to play more active roles in the growth and development of their children by leveraging on multi-sectoral resources such as the Government and community sectors as well employers and schools.
Just recently, FAN launched its Fathers@Schools program, a platform to encourage fathers to be more active in their children’s school lives. Additionally, the Dads for Life website at www.dadsforlife.sg was launched on April 1.