How a Dad Can Build Bridges and Connect With His Kids
The annual Thanksgiving game would conclude my senior high football career. Our area had been inundated by fierce rainstorms, and we were told the football game might be postponed but to report for the game Thanksgiving morning anyway. At halftime each senior football player would be introduced and walk from the sideline with their parents/guardians to be recognized by the crowd in acknowledgement of our final home football game. The game was postponed, parents were notified, and shortly after, the game was back on. Except, my parents were not notified the game was back on. (This was before cell phones) My parents eventually found out the game was back on and got there...just after the halftime ceremony. Every other senior had their parents present; I remember one mother felt so sorry and awkward for me as we waited on the sideline. I had only recently come to this high school and the move had been tough, so this was one more bad high school experience of hearing my name announced on the loudspeaker, my parents names, and walking alone from the sideline to mid-field and turning to face the crowd in the stands. It was a long walk. The event didn't help my already broken relationship with my parents at the time.
After his funeral I found this letter...
My father passed away a few years ago. I had to go through all his papers. Dad never embraced the electronic era so I had mounds of paper to go through. It took me hours, but I eventually found the deed to the house. I couldn't believe how much he kept. He had huge files on my siblings and me. I think he kept every father's day card I ever made in elementary school and middle school, misconduct slips, a police report of a German Shepherd that bit me, and then I found this letter. I felt like I was in a Hallmark movie. It was dated December 2, 1985 and addressed to the principal of my high school.
This letter is a result of my anger and frustration over the events surrounding the Thanksgiving Day Football game...If I had just missed half a game I would not be overly concerned, but I missed much more. You see, I had flown David's brother home from college to see the game—his only opportunity to ever see his brother play...What has especially hurt us all is the fact that due to no communication...we missed the Senior ceremony...The move we made a year ago to come to this area was very disruptive to our children and we have supported them in everything and came to all the games this year. When the seniors lined up for the ceremony, and the names of the parents were called my son stood there in line embarrassed and hurt when his parents didn't come forward. He was the only one to be alone, and he shouldn't have been. In time, pain of that incident will heal and I hope we can teach him something as a result, but I wonder, respectfully, if you might learn something too.
That was about as harsh as dad got, he wasn't a vicious man. If my dad ever told me he had sent this letter I certainly forgot. I never knew my dad felt that way, thought that way, until l read that letter. Reading that letter made me love him still more and gave me joy and strength. Even from the grave, more than 25 years later, my father blessed me and strengthened more powerfully the bridge between us. Oh yes, that letter is in manila folder in my desk!
In this article I am using the "bridge" metaphor with fathers and their son or daughter. A father and their son or daughter are separate individuals, like separate islands or cities, and we want to build bridges to our kids to love them.
Fathering truths to live by
Truths a dad has to know and believe...
- Your son, your daughter, your children are the most valuable important thing in your life besides your spouse. You have no greater accomplishment in life than being a father. (Maybe if you find cures to several types of cancer that might be just as great) Your children are your most important investment, project, your top priority in life.
- You do know what to do. All or almost every father will at some point think and feel, "I don't know what to do." This is a most unpleasant thought and feeling for a man. Our kids teach us how not in control we really are. This may be why you prefer the office, shop, or garage to your home as your kids make you feel unsure and inadequate. But you are not alone when you are terrified by the thought and feeling of "I don't know what to do." Passing through the stage of "I don't know what to do" is part of the fathering journey. And pass through it your must. On the other side the greater truth is "I do know what to do." You will grow in patience, understanding, and love. You will make a plan. You will rise to the challenge. You will learn and grow. You have what it takes to be the father your kid needs.
- You are irreplaceable in the life of your child. You must believe this. You have something to give and bestow on them no other man on earth can give or bestow. It doesn't matter how cool their teacher is, or how influential and powerful their coach is, or how many more great toys their friend's dad has, you are irreplaceable...because you alone are dad. Teachers, coaches, bosses, and other men will help shape your kids for better or worse but you are there for the long haul and you alone are their FATHER. Your words have a power no other man has because you are their FATHER.
- Never give up. Failure is never final. When it comes to fathering, the fact that you just keep showing up is winning. You just keep pursuing and loving your kids in good times and bad and they will praise you. No matter what they say, the worst words, "I hate you," you never give up. No matter what they do. You never give up. Your children need you dad to never give up on them. You make them experience the consequences of their bad decisions but you never give up on them.
Basic bridge-building tools
Here are the essential tools needed to build strong bridges with your children...
- Time. Hours. Seconds. Afternoons. Scheduling time with your kids. Spontaneously stopping a project to play or be with your kids. We have to give them our precious time.
- Touch. Holding hands. Wrestling. Hugs. Arm around their shoulder. Still hug your teenage daughter because she needs it. If you google something like, "the importance of a parent touching their children" and you will find a myriad of research testifying to the need and power of a parent's physical touch with their children. A parent's touch positively affects brain development and emotional well-being as well as decreases stress and depression. There is a lot of science behind the need for a parent to touch their children no matter how old they are. “Physical contact is important across the lifespan,” says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/the-importance-of-touch/ When your kid has had a bad day you can say, "I'm sorry, that is painful," and you will be validating their feelings but your hug or arm around their shoulder is emotionally comforting and strengthening to them.
- Listening. Don't think of your rebuttal or answer while you are listening to them. Really listen and respond to their questions, yearnings, issues, and problems. Don't kill their foolish dreams, at least not immediately, but see if you might participate in, clarify, or help their dreams become reality.
- Words. Dogs, not words, are man's best friend. Still we must try our best with our words. Here are some words every dad needs to communicate in some way to their children. "I am proud of you." "I love you." "I am sorry." "You can do it."
Seems like a short bridge to your kid's heart
Seems like a long long bridge to your kid's heart
Building bridges to your kids by talking
I am not sure what precipitated my dad's emotions but I am grateful. We were talking on the phone when he suddenly shared a childhood remembrance of me and how he felt about it. My father shared a story of watching me make a big play in a little league football game and how proud of me he was. He shared in vivid detail, with emotion in his voice, and tears came to my eyes. I never knew my dad had felt that way about me. My father was an emotional late-bloomer in life. But once my father found his voice and discovered the power of sharing his feelings he was all in. Late in life, it became somewhat normal for my father to say, "I am so proud of you." Late in life, my father blessed my brother and I with many such affirming life-giving words and he became a mentor to many other young men besides my brother and I. At my father's funeral my brother and I were amazed how many other men our own age our father blessed with words of affirmation.
Did your child win an award? Tell them how you feel about that. Did your child have a bad experience in a game? Tell them how you feel about that. When I found out one of my daughter's had a bad experience with a young man I went to her immediately and told her I was very angry. Keeping the bridge open meant sharing her pain and letting her know I was angry.
Intentional words at specific moments in their lives. Consider sharing very important stories, truths, or feelings at specific moments in your kids lives. Your son is turning 12 and you want him to know _______________. Your daughter is turning 16 and you want her to know ___________. Your child is leaving home for college or something at 18 and before they leave you want to tell them _______________. There are times to share some of your own key moments as a man, your triumphs and defeats. Your children need to know your wise choices as well as your mistakes. Keep building the bridge.
Talking about big events. Any big events in your life; a death, job loss or change, etc, don't make excuses for not talking to your kids about it. If it's too hard for us to talk about we don't need to have a long conversation to keep the bridge open with our kids but we have to SAY SOMETHING. Our kids often know much more than we think.
- I feel __________________ about __________________. How do you (your child) feel about _____________________?
- What happened is ___________________________. I am _______________________about that. What do you think about it?
- Last Sunday (this happened) . This is how I feel/think about (what happened) and this is what I am going to do in response to ___________________. Our kids deserve to know what you are going to do in response to hard or challenging circumstances. This is how we build bridges and maintain them with our kids.
Building bridges with daily events
Connect with your kids on a daily basis...
Dinner time. Dinner time, if you can have dinner together is a great way to connect with your kids and stay connected. Sharing a meal together builds bridges. Here are a few ways I've used to build bridges at dinner time...
- Favorite part of the day. Everyone at the dinner table shares their favorite part of the day. I usually ask the question but sometimes one of my kids will initiate it. You are not allowed to say "right now" and though some days are tough help your kids come up with something.
- What are you thankful for today? It's similar to a favorite part of the day but teaches gratitude.
- Current events. Did you hear what happened today in Houston? Germany? It's good to talk about current events and share thoughts and opinions on what happened in the world each day.
- Geography and exotic places. Ever heard of the Faroe Islands? Have your kids ever seen a map or pictures of Nepal? I would look up some country or far away place and bring my laptop to the dinner table and show a map and pictures. This is a favorite for my family when I have time. The Faroe Islands are fascinating.
After dinner. After dinner is a great time to establish some routine to build bridges with your kids. You may find a show on Netflix you all enjoy. Growing up we all used to watch "Magnum P.I" on Thursday nights as a family. Often times we will watch "Jeopardy" together. If the weather is good you may go outside and practice some sport with your kid or go for a bike ride. If your kids retreat to their rooms after dinner you may make a habit of briefly visiting and checking in on each kid as a way to build a bridge to them.
Bedtime. Always say good night to your kids in some way. It's easy to hug and kiss your kids when they are in elementary school but harder with teenagers. Yet sometimes I will ask my college age daughter, when she is home, if I can give her a hug. Why? Because she still needs her father's loving touch. Here are some ideas for bedtime bridge-building...
- A hug.
- Reading a book to them or with them. There are so many great kids books filled with heroes and adventures that you both will enjoy and look forward to.
- Read books for kids about historical figures.
- Share stories about your own childhood adventures and follies. It's especially fun if you share a story about a time when you were their age. Sharing your mistakes makes you human with your kids. Sharing your stories, good and bad, is a powerful bridge-builder.
Building bridges with special events
Build bridges with your kids with special events that will create life-long memories with them. These events will have to cost you time and some money. When my two girls were younger we had "Daddy-daughter campouts" every summer for 4 years. We went for three days and two nights to a state park and those are unforgettable memories. Now my young son and I just had our 4th consecutive last summer at Pokagon State Park outside Angola, Indiana. A few other ideas for special events...
- Dates. Take your kids on dates. Make it a monthly ritual. My dad would take me to McDonald's on Saturday mornings for breakfast for a time during my boyhood. Rollerskating, ice-skating, movies, dinners, hikes, sporting events, concerts, plays, etc.
- Movies. My young son loves old war movies on Netflix. We have enjoyed such classics like "The Longest Day" and "The Great Escape" together. I am thankful he already knows who Steve McQueen is at 10. My daughters and I have enjoyed the Harry Potter movies together. My middle daughter loves the Avengers movies and we now have a tradition of going to see a new Avengers movie the opening weekend. It's something she will always remember now.
- Special places. A friend of mine has established "special places" with his son and daughter. With each of his kids he has a "secret place" known only to them where they go to have special talks. There is a certain park he goes to with one of his kids where they walk and talk and it's a place for them to be close.
- Vacations. Family vacations are great ways to build bridges. Going on vacation to some beautiful or relaxing place can often create a window of time to have great talks with your kids and make lasting memories. Sometimes it's unplanned moments or when things go awry that can be unforgettable and humorous for a family for years.
- Holidays. My brother and his son take a long walk at a local park that is all decorated for Christmas. It's a special time and tradition for them. My family and I live by a lake and if the ice is solid we would go for a walk on the lake on Christmas Eve. Growing up my father would have an in-house easter candy and jelly bean hunt before we went to church on Easter morning. Sometime in August we would inevitably find a jelly bean melded with the 70s shag carpet. Holidays are great ways to build bridges with your kids and make lasting memories.
Come up with your own special events making life-long memories with your kids.
Keep your side of the bridge open
Keep your side of the bridge open
As a father, you may well go through seasons with your kids when they close the bridge you built with them, seasons when they shut you out, often that's part of being a dad. Part of being a dad is often getting rejected, devalued, and denied by your kids. They may close the bridge because of something you did, or something wrong they did, maybe you had to discipline them and they want to punish you, but regardless of the reason you have to keep your side of the bridge open. Maybe you need to apologize, maybe they need to apologize to you, but keep your side of the bridge open. These are the moments, when they shut you out, when you as a father win your medals of honor, courage, and love by continuing to show love to your son or daughter even when your love appears to have no impact or value on them.
In one such season with one of my kids who had closed our bridge down what kept me going is thinking 10 and 20 years ahead. I kept pursuing my one child, going into their room when I knew I was unwanted, talking to them when I knew they despised my voice, loving on them when I knew I would get no love in return. It's what I expected at the moment but I was not thinking of the moment. In 10 or 20 years I want my kid to remember that I never stopped pursuing them, and eventually I believe there will be a payoff but nonetheless that is the father I want to be. You want your kid to remember the ways you built bridges to them when they are older and gone from your home.
Always keep your side of the bridge open.