What does a good father do?

What does a good parent do for their children? What specifically, if anything, can only a father do for a child?

It’s an easy question to ask, but complex to answer. Much of what we have in our minds about what good parents do, or don’t do, is based on our own experiences. Since we only have the two parents we’re born with, we depend on secondary sources to evaluate the ones we have: the parents of friends and cousins, television shows, books and movies. And only as we grow into adulthood do we have enough context to see our parents in a broader light, including perhaps the light of the experience of being parents ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about this topic and it’s obviously background for my book The Ghost of My Father (on sale now with great reviews). Without falling into the traps of genders, many of the things good fathers do fall into the general pile of what any good parents does. In drafting this post I wrote many lists about fathers, but in revising I realized much of these lists were really about parenting, and not gender or role specific.

Things good parents do: 

  • Keep the family safe
  • Provide financial resources
  • Provide opportunities for children to learn and grow
  • Set examples of good behavior
  • Enforce rules that are fair
  • Are present and happily available with their time
  • Create the first healthy emotional relationships children will have
  • Model conflict resolution, introspection, goal setting, patience, civic duty, and more
  • Be reliable and committed

Things good parents encourage in their children:  

  • Developing independence and confidence
  • Being trustworthy
  • Having self-discipline and commitment
  • Desire to be helpful
  • Learning useful skills
  • Following the child’s own dreams and ambitions

This list applies regardless of gender. A single parent could do these things, or two parents of the same sex. What then is the exclusive domain of fathers? What things can fathers do that mothers can not?

Things good fathers do: 

  • Teach skills important to boys for becoming a man: self-discipline, sports, grooming, how to make friends. A woman could certainly teach these skills if she had them, but perhaps there would be elements missing than only a man would be likely to know?
  • Model for girls and boys what a good man is like (trustworthy, respectful, skilled, self-disciplined, confident but humble). But aren’t these just traits of any good person, regardless of gender? Is there some specific element of the idea of man-ness that only a man can demonstrate?

What’s missing from these lists? Or am I wrong and there are more things only fathers can do?

47 Responses to “What does a good father do?”

  1. Riccardo Bua (@RiccardoBua)

    Hi Scott,

    just started with parenting and there are surely challenges, as an educator I was told that provided you put the children at the center and keep them there your work was done and I still follow that path.

    I am challenged by your approach around what parents should do/be, first and foremost they should let their children be and assist them whichever avenue they pursue :-)

    All the rest will follow ;-)

    Regards,

    Riccardo

    Reply
    1. Rl

      Scott is spot on. Raising a child is like building a house. You need to lay down a good foundation of values. Then they can can grow
      and build up upon it.
      Since you are new to this take my word for it. If you fail to do this
      You will have teenagers and young adults who you can’t relate to and have nothing
      In common with. By then it is to late to fix it. You will be asking yourself what happened.
      If you don’t teach your kids values
      They will not have them.
      Demonstrate observe and confirm
      As many of life’s lessons as possible.

      Reply
  2. Yves Hanoulle (@yvesHanoulle)

    In the mythologies of the archetype of a father (could be done by a women) , a father is also the person who tells his kids, it’s ok to stand on your own.
    Basically tell the kids to (gently) push a child out the door, and tell them, yes you can do this. You are ready to go and face the world.

    Where the archetype of the mother , is the person who protects the child, and tells them you are small it’s ok when you can’t do it on your own.

    A child ( or human) needs to hear both messages.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      I’m realizing it’s hard to write about fathers broadly without writing about culture. The role of fathers varies widely depending on the nation and culture the family is in:

      A quick look at the table of contents of The Fathers Role: A Cross Cultural Perspective demonstrates this.

      Reply
        1. Scott

          Yves: Some absolutely do cross many cultures, but some don’t. It also depends on how far back in history you’re willing to go, as 500, 1000, or 3000 years ago every culture had different values and roles than the do know.

          That book is likely dated (1987 I think) so it’s not a great resource, but it was available online.

          Reply
  3. Amy

    I can only imagine how cathartic your next book will be. I’ll share what I feel a good father does not do: teach his child through punishing. I realize this is a bold assertion, however, there are other more effective ways of teaching that strengthen the adult-child relationship. Obviously, this isn’t something only a father can do, but since fathers are historically referred to as disciplinarians it’s worth mentioning that they can discipline without shaming and hurting their children. This shows the child that we don’t have to exert power over each other to teach and learn.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Thanks for the comment Amy. I didn’t get into much trouble as a kid, but when I did there was a difference between believing in the rules I broke and not. Being punished doesn’t seem to be necessarily bad provided the child knew about the rules, or even agrees with the punishment.

      It’s interesting though how playing the disciplinarian role shifts to women in families where the father isn’t around much, which was true in my case.

      Reply
        1. Amy

          I am speaking of the idea that we need to make children feel worse for them to do better. I more broadly describe the differences between punishment, permissiveness and discipline here… http://presenceparenting.com/ways-to-discipline-a-child/. Certainly this applies to both genders and yet it ties into how men handle boundaries and relationships. Fathers do model how men are as partners, etc. Children of both genders are imprinted with “this is who men are” and this goes into how to be one, please one, etc. The parent child relationship is so amazingly formative!

          Reply
          1. Nick

            People and children should feel shame. When my children do something bad, they should feel bad. Men should care enough to punish and model at the same time. Run the household. Teach what is acceptable and what is not. Be strong and fair.

    2. Human

      I agree, totally. Punishment humiliates and creates resentment, first and foremost. There is no situation where punishment cannot be replaced by natural consequences that provide learning along with building competence, self control, confidence, and strengthening positive bonds with others.

      Reply
  4. Amy

    Also, to clarify, I am not judging a father who punishes as “bad”. I am sharing that there’s another way, and that way may be found to be “good” by both father and child. Sowing seeds for change, with compassion… I hope it comes through.

    Reply
  5. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

    I agree with Amy, mostly because when fathers do punish, it’s usually to say:
    you should not behave bad / be aggressive.

    so this is twice as bad, as the medium is not in sync with the message.
    and that confuses children….

    Reply
    1. Amy

      Exactly. Like meets like and it continues the belief that we must feel bad to do good.

      Reply
  6. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

    There is also another important message usually fathers give, and that is to girls.
    It’s even more controversial as it’s about their sexuality.
    Being accepted as a full grown women, is an important message for women.
    Now, let’ s be clear, there are multiple ways to do that, and there are good and bad ways.
    A message as simple as: what clothes are you wearing. I won’t let you go out until you are decently dressed is already a very mixed message.
    As it says I could be received as: I don’t accept you the way you are.
    It could be seen as a boundary needed for a young women.
    And it could send the message: you are now a women and no longer a little girl.

    (The same message can be send by accepting that a girl receives privacy in using the bathroom etc etc..)

    From what I learned in my therapy training, women that did not receive a message like this, have a lot of chance to struggle in some kind of way with their sexuality.

    Reply
  7. Jenny

    Hi Scott, I think you’re on the right track in thinking about fatherhood as a function of gender — since, from a semantic/cultural POV, that’s what seems to distinguish it from motherhood, or parenthood in general.

    But I also think it might be helpful to consider fatherhood in the context of relationships (to mothers or co-fathers.) In two-parent families, fathers often represent a *different* way of doing things (loading the dishwasher, helping with homework,) in addition to modeling half of a relationship and the role that relationship plays in the family dynamic.

    Look forward to your next book.

    Reply
  8. mwgrigs

    Good introspective and certainly one that will garner many more thoughts and opinions. Looking forward to the next book! In my opinion, I think almost any trait or quality that could be assigned to a good father could be extended to good mothers and belongs under the umbrella of good parenting sans gender-labeling. However, there is one thing that only fathers can teach their children and that is the nature of authentic manhood–that is, what it means to be a man.

    There are two gender roles among humans and those roles have two very different purposes. Subsequently, only fathers can demonstrate genuine manhood and only women can demonstrate true womanhood. There are many facets to manhood or womanhood and no one individual encompasses them all. When a father exudes and exemplifies authentic manhood he empowers his sons to exercise that same manhood in all its goodness without fear, shame, or confusion; he likewise empowers his daughters to embrace genuine womanhood.

    Mothers living in authentic womanhood empower their daughters to walk in the fullness of womanhood without fear, shame, or confusion, likewise empowering their sons to embrace true manhood. Manhood is greater than mere masculinity as womanhood is greater than and beyond femininity. Without fathers demonstrating authentic manhood or mothers demonstrating authentic womanhood, children (boys and girls) will be strapped with debilitating fear, shame, or confusion about the essence of their gender uniqueness.

    Reply
      1. mwgrigs

        Was hinting at a deeper notion of what it means to be a man or woman. Our culture often defines manhood or womanhood by pointing to masculinity or femininity as the chief metrics, which do encompass the entirety of being a man or woman (Can I be a real man if I cry and like ballet, or be a real woman if I don’t wear dresses and like diesel machinery?). I wasn’t attempting to define authentic/genuine manhood/womanhood, only differentiate between perceived manhood/womanhood and real manhood/womanhood (i.e. the cover figure on GQ or Vogue does not necessarily embody authentic manhood/womanhood). Only a father (a man) can exemplify manhood and only a mother (a woman) can exemplify womanhood. Apologies if my comment took the thread off topic.

        Reply
  9. Paul Sas

    What about being playful, joking, highlighting the humorous aspects of everyday experience. My own approach to kids, both my own and any that I meet, is to introduce a little absurdity, sort of like the way Dr Seuss’s books foreground the role of imaginative twists.
    I suppose if your own temperament isn’t very playful, it would not be advisable to fake a light touch.
    Parenting in that sense is being a mensch (or womensch).
    One line I recall from reading Merlin Mann way back was “Be a Dad”. Google ‘Merlin Mann “Be a Dad”‘ for a nice image

    Reply
    1. Scott

      This is definitely important if being playful and seeing life as funny is a value you want your children to have. I’m not sure it has to come from the father though – as my sense of absurdity comes mostly from my mother. I wonder if I would have learned that lesson differently if it had come from my father instead.

      Reply
      1. @GetzelR

        This highlights the unstated question (what is good?) that must preface the question about what is a good father, which steers the question into an area I think you’d rather postulate.

        Reply
      2. @GetzelR

        My own thought is that a good father consciously raises good children.

        Even having established a definition for good (through religion/philosophy or personal/communal consensus), how to inspire or inculcate that in children is subject to disagreement in both senses of the word: lack of consensus and lack of consistency.

        In a given scenario is a good father present or absent? Gentle or harsh?

        Reply
  10. Daniel H. (germany)

    Three small, unrelated thoughts I had when reading your post. I don’t know if these are helpful but I’ll post them anyway.

    “Enforce rules that are fair”
    Here in germany, Jesper Juul is quite popular (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesper_Juul_(family_therapist) ). One of his thoughts is that we should not have rules for children – instead there should be rules for families. I really like this idea and it probably relates very well to what you meant with “fair rules”.

    “Things good parents do”
    I really like the theory that parents do not have to be perfect. Instead there is a point of being “good enough” which is completely sufficient for children to develop their own personality and choose their own path (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Winnicott#False_self ). (I should probably note that I do not have kids on my own)

    “Teach skills important to boys for becoming a man”
    An hour ago – before I read your post, so completely unrelated – I watched the quite interesting TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood . To me, it was the quite personal story of a father who talks about what he wants and does not want to teach his kids, especially regarding gender roles (and mostly related to movies). So it appears to relate quite well to your topic.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Thank you the thoughtful links Daniel.

      And having rules for families (instead of just for kids) is definitely an improvement on what I wrote.

      Reply
      1. Riccardo Bua (@RiccardoBua)

        I am coming back to my original note, I am afraid I am still seeing a lot of points surrounding what a parent or a family should do, to me in reality it is the youngsters who have to discover and lead their own path in a self discovery way, where the parents are more the supporters and eye openers than the educators, for more reference on the child centered school like Montessori, Steiner and Freinet: http://www.freinet-edu.com/en_pedagogy_0302.html

        Reply
        1. Scott

          Thanks Riccardo. I’m familiar with Montessori and similar philosophies – I like them. I might disagree with the specific methods they use, but I buy the philosophy of wanting to encourage children to discover and learn the process of discovery.

          It’s possible the comments you’re seeing are heavily influenced by the way I asked the question – focusing on fathers. Had I asked the question more broadly, perhaps “how to raise a good child” you may have seen very different answers from the same people.

          Reply
          1. Riccardo Bua (@RiccardoBua)

            Good point Scott,

            what I am trying to say is that often it is not what you do, but want you don’t do which is get in the way, you want to be a supportive figure that makes the point of being there in troubled times, but also to be the one that cheers on every little or big success, assuming a leading role, often negates the opportunity for the self discovery process but also implies a big set of self esteem and rights for the parents that are all but granted(who are we to determine the right or wrong, good or bad, gender determination and so on).

            I keep seeing myself as the biggest supporter in the role, try to set some boundaries when it comes to education, but all in all stay away from the role of the ruler or any similarly fashioned figure.

        2. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

          I agree youngsters have to find their way, yet youngsters are only able to go out and find their way, when they have the feeling they are loved and have been good nurtured.
          For me, this is where a role for the parents is set.

          Reply
    2. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

      I’m not sure I understand why no rules for children.
      I do agree that most rules should apply to everyone. as in do what I do, not do what I say.

      yet, I see value for children specific rules. My 11 year old can cook and make dinner all by him self. My 6 year old daughter is not allowed. Partly because age, yet I can see that maybe at 11 she or her now 9 year old brother won’t be allowed because they might not see risks enough.

      Reply
  11. Gayna

    Not sure how far back in parenting you’re going but one of the only books i have ever recommended on parenting is http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385483627/associatizer-20/ its written by a ethnopediatrician and does a great job of explaining what cultures care about and value and how we all survive early parenting/and early childhood. Discipline or not, medicine or not, community raising or isolation. I buy this book for new parents as basically it says there are no rules.

    Reply
  12. matt k

    Here’s some books that I loved as a new father… (i have no particular interest in promoting any of these so not to worry):
    michael lewis – home game
    jay mohr’s book – no wonder my parent’s drank (the grandfather cars story is great lesson)
    nurtureshock – po bronson – amazing!!!, some ‘data’ on fathers – but amazing lessons/insights overall for dads and all
    brain rules for baby – medina. amazing
    how children succeed
    mind in the making –
    anne lamott – operating instructions
    rules for my unborn son – walker lamond

    Reply
  13. Steen

    Hi Scott,

    I’m a father of three boys, and thought that I might chip in with the thoughts that I have given the matter. Not all of them, though, since I think about the matter on a daily basis. Which is sort of the base of my point. I have come to the conclusion that whatever I do, some of the things I do, or say, my kids will disagree with at some point of their lives. So I have made it my dictum to be able to give reasoned grounds for each major action I take in their lives or idea that I try to put into their head.

    As a father, I feel that there are some things in my kids behavior for which I have an instinctive understanding. There are different things that my wife has a better understanding of. And at the end of the day, such a deep understanding of their mental life only comes with spending a lot of time with them.

    Thanks for thinking and writing about the subject.

    Reply
  14. Doug Shaw

    Great subject to write about Scott. My Mum died shortly before I turned 19 and Dad died more recently, in January 2012. In the aftermath of Mum’s death we didn’t get along too well. Things change, for the better in our case and my Dad became a huge supporter of me, and my sisters too.

    When I set my own business up he offered words of support often, and actions too. He would bend over backwards to be there to look after our daughter Keira so I could scrabble around looking for work. Good Dads support. I miss him like crazy.

    I wrote this on the first anniversary of his death

    http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.com/engaging/celebrate-a-life/

    And this on the second

    http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.com/learning/happy-anniversary/

    As you know I’m loving The Year Without Pants – and looking forward to this next one now.

    Cheers – Doug

    Reply
  15. Julie

    Something that requires both parents would be modeling how to disagree (argue) and compromise……something that is definitely lacking these days. Children should be able to see that two people do not always have to agree 100% of the time, but that mutual love and respect can overcome those differences.

    Reply
  16. Gabe Wollenburg

    I question how helpful it is to pigeonhole the conversation into one of culturally determined gender norms– which, Scott, I see you running into in a few other comments in this thread.

    A good father is not necessarily male, but certainly takes on aspects of masculinity– what does it matter if the person teaching a child about sports, courtship, grooming has a penis or not? What matters is how a child is taught to embrace their masculine and feminine whole.

    Maybe it’s time to get all Jungian up in here?

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0691018847/scottberkunco-20/

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Hi Gabe: I was deliberately going after this actually. I was trying to ask what it is that only a father can do (e.g. “A woman could certainly teach these skills if she had them”).

      There are various ratholes and corner cases that are important, but not of primary importance to me for this book, as my parents fit neatly into gender/role norms for Americans.

      Reply
  17. calvin

    Scott,

    Don’t you think this book is premature, until you raise a kid yourself believe me you will have no idea what it is to be a father, a vital perspective that you might miss.
    You will empathize a lot more with your parents after you have children of your own.
    and will have far better insights.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Thanks Ken. I’d seen this before years ago and it was a pleasure to watch again.

      Reply
  18. Phillip Hunter

    Haven’t read the many (and no longer counted?) comments, so perhaps someone else touched on this already.

    “Do” in your post seems to focus only on communicated lessons and skills, leaving out the equally or more important “to be” re: issues of identity, belonging, ethics, and how they form due to how we are raised, environment, observation, etc. So, a father, just by being male, “does” some things that are undoable by the mother, because she is a woman. The opposite is true as well, of course. I suspect that parent and child personality plays a big role in this, too.

    To expound, some lessons have more weight because they are given by someone we share relatively fixed identity traits with. Maybe the way to say this is, it takes a man to truly teach a son how to be a man because the current man and the future man share man-ness. Also, it takes a man to teach a daughter how a man acts healthily with a woman because the current man and future woman share a difference. Thus, a what a father does is be a good parent while being a man. So, yes, a mother can teach a son to court, but there seems to be some added value or benefit to a father teaching the son. Same skill. Different je ne sais quoi.

    This applies as well to teaching of what not to do as a man/father/parent, which I had to use to teach myself how to be a father.

    Reply
  19. Rick Anderson

    A good father needs to love his children’s mother

    Reply
  20. Gloria Buono-Daly

    There are so many books on fathers, family, etc. Good fathers set examples. Be it in what they do, what they have, and what they let go.

    Reply
  21. Juliette

    Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys talks a great deal about the roles of fathers (and other men) as opposed to mothers and is certainly worth a read if you are interested in that topic.

    There’s obviously a great deal written about parenting generally, so much so that it is hard to know where to start if you are after overarching ideas about the role of parents rather than practical tips. Between Parent and Child by Ginott? Mind in the Making by Galinksy and Vook? Peaceful parent, happy kids by Markham? You’ll want to read about authoritative vs. authoritarian parenting styles certainly too. Many of the differences in opinion come down to what results different ways of parenting have in the long-term vs. the short-term and also the issue of staying sane yourself while being a parent. Your list of things that good parents do makes the role of parenting look so simple – whereas the nitty gritty of how you go about that is actually what is often hard especially when you have to respond to everything in real time.

    Reply
    1. Asad

      A father should focus on tow tracts while raising his children, instill core values in them and highlights the importance of education. Fathers who only think of themselves as primary providers, and not play a major role in instilling values and educating their children, fall short in bringing up a decent family for themselves and for a society as whole.

      Reply
  22. Asad

    A father should focus on tow tracts while raising his children, instill core values in them and highlights the importance of education. Fathers who only think of themselves as primary providers, and not play a major role in instilling values and educating their children, fall short in bringing up a decent family for themselves and for a society as whole.

    Reply

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