I’ve been writing in the parenting space for years now, and as a father, I’d say the biggest tip I hear given to new fathers is to “be present.” That’s it. No explanation. No further information. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to presentations on fatherhood, and the interviewer asks some celebrity how to be a good dad, and they just say, “be present” and every father in the auditorium nods as if they know exactly what that means.
But you know what, I don’t think anyone in the room, even the celebrity father, knows what that means. So let’s unpack it, because being present sounds pretty passive, don’t you think? It sounds like just sitting there watching TV while the mother of your children breaks up a fight qualifies as being present, since your body is in the same room as your kids. And I’m sorry, passively being present is not what good fathering looks like.
Coming home from work, asking what’s for dinner, and then tuning on the Xbox is not being present. Hiding in the bathroom and screwing around on your phone to avoid helping your exhausted wife is not being present. Standing on the sidelines of your child’s game and answering emails or taking calls from work the entire time is not being present.
I can say this because in the 13 years that I’ve been a father I have been guilty of all of the above.
So what does being present actually look like? Well… it looks like an active verb. Being present is an action. Being present means engaging with your children and setting a good example. It means wrangling them into the tub, and into bed, and reading them three stories when you only want to read one, but you need to be honest when you sign your daughter’s school planner that states “read with child for 20 minutes.” Being present means taking the time to notice that you wife is already frazzled so you stand between her and your ten-year-old and say, “I can help. I’m right here. What do you need?”
Being present means siting next to your kids on a Friday evening and watching that horrible animated garbage they love so much. It means listening, and I mean really listening, to what your kids have to say, and giving them advice. It means being open and honest about the mistakes and struggles you experienced as a child with your own children because it humanizes you, and helps them feel connected to you.
In the case of separation and divorce, being present means maximizing the time you have with your children. It means prioritizing your children when they are with you. It means never missing a scheduled weekend, afternoon, or holiday. It means calls and texts and everything possible to make sure your children understand that you are a valuable resource who will listen and love and advise, even when you can’t be under the same roof.
And as far as your marriage is concerned, you need to show your children how to love your partner through — you guessed it — your actions. Be the role model. Set the example.
I want my son to see me buy his mother flowers, and offer to fold the laundry, because I never saw my father do it. I want my son to know the importance of showing affection, even after many years of marriage. And for my daughters, I want them to expect flowers. I want them to expect their spouse to contribute to household chores. I want them to marry someone who is willing to take that extra bit of time and money to invest in romance.
I don’t want my children to feel lost like I did. I want them to know what a good marriage looks like. I want them to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I loved their mother.
In order to do that, I need to show it to them.
Every time I tell my children that I love their mother, they roll their eyes and say, “We know, Dad.” I love that. Regardless of what is going on in their life, they know they have two parents who love each other, and them. Coming from a broken home, I know how important that is to a child. In the case of my father, what I saw was indifference. I saw avoidance. I saw the silence of two people who were once in love, but had drifted completely apart.
Showing your kids you love their other parent means saying “sorry.” It means admitting you were wrong. It means saying, “I love you.” It means doing all of this in front of your children.
Now listen, if loving the other parent of your children isn’t possible, find a way to respect and listen to them. Regardless of the situation, you are in this parenting thing together. I understand that for some of you, this may be the hardest reality of fatherhood. But, part of being a good dad to your amazing kids is having respect for their mom.
Guys, being present is an active verb. It’s not something you can just passively accomplish. Being present means being available, listening, watching your children’s actions, checking in with their teachers, attending games, getting up in the night, checking their toothbrush to see if it’s wet, meeting their friends, and a million other actions.
Yes, being present is important. It is the most important thing you can do as a father. But it is not passive. It is not something you just fall into by living in the same house. It is something you must actively do every day, so that your family knows they are the most important people in your world.