7 Habits of Highly Effective Fathers

7 Habits of Highly Effective Fathers

By Johan Verster – Husband, pastor and father of 4 young children

Most men have either read, or have at least heard of Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of highly effective people”. It was originally published in 1989 and has since been an international bestseller – 15 million copies have been sold and the book has been translated into 38 languages. As the subtitle suggests (“powerful lessons in personal change”), Covey presents a “self-help” approach to being effective in attaining personal goals. But what if your personal goal is to be a good father to your children? Is this an attainable goal? To use Covey’s subtitle (slightly tongue-in-cheek!) Are there “powerful lessons in parental change”?

What follows are not “THE 7”, but 7 habits that I believe are hallmarks of dads who are “effective” in fathering their children:

  1. Effective fathers are physically and emotionally present

I wrote an article on this matter in last year’s edition of the “Expectant Father’s Guide” (entitled “A.W.O.L”), but it needs to be stated again as we consider the hallmarks of effective fathering. Many fathers make the mistake of thinking that their primary role is to provide for their family’s material needs. Although we do have a huge responsibility in this regard, we have an even greater responsibility to tend to our children’s emotional needs. We have all seen the movies, and know personal stories of children that grew up with all that the world could offer and yet ended up utterly miserable and self-destructive, because they lacked the one thing that they truly longed for – love from their parents.

Recent studies have argued that a father’s physical and emotional presence is especially important in the development of his children’s emotional wellbeing. There is no amount of toys, or video games, friends or babysitters that can replace the father-shaped-void in a child’s heart. And there is no school, extra curricular activity, or therapy that can nurture and shape a child into healthy adulthood, as a loving and present father can manage to do.

  1. Effective fathers know and speak their children’s love languages

Another book that many of us will be familiar with is Gary Chapman’s “The 5 love languages”. The principle articulated in the book holds true for our children as well. Each of our children have their own unique way of ‘registering’ that we love them. Let me use a personal example to illustrate this truth:

I am the proud father of four beautiful kids – of which the oldest and the youngest are boys. My oldest boy loves it when I cuddle him (physical touch), but the youngest one is not that keen for me to hold and hug him. To be honest, until recently he was noticeably standoffish and cold towards me. A few weeks ago everything changed. I decided to take him out on a “dad & lad” date. Nothing fancy, just the two of us. He didn’t have to share my attention or affection with the other three, and that was exactly what he needed – “quality time”.

Ever since that day it seems that our relationship has turned a corner. It is not that I haven’t showed him love before, the problem was he didn’t hear my “I love you’s”! Now he seems to be hearing me. The change in him has been remarkable. He is not only been warmer towards me, but seems to have become more obedient in the process!

  1. Effective fathers discipline their children

We live in a world where ‘discipline’ often gets a bad rap, because many equate it with physical and emotional abuse. It is however helpful to remember that the word “discipline” and the word “disciple” (which means “to be a student”, or “a learner”) are part of the same semantic family. In other words, to discipline your children is for you to be intentional in training and instructing them, not in a classroom setting, but in the context of everyday life.

The problem is that many dads feel guilty for all the hours spent at the office and so they opt to rather be the “nice guy” at home. They are not intentional and consistent in disciplining (and discipling) their children and the result is that their children’s unruly behaviour ends up someone else’s problem – the mom who is frantically trying to manage the household, the schoolteacher who is trying to do his/her work, a society who is eventually burdened with dysfunctional citizens. At the end of the day it is however the children themselves who are the greatest losers in this regard. To use an analogy, the tree that should have been shaped while it was still moldable, grows up unhealthy and deformed and the older and bigger the tree gets, the more work is required to prune and replant it.

  1. Effective fathers instill healthy family rhythms

We live in a high-paced day and age where the ever-increasing demands of life have the ability of draining and destroying any notion of family-life. Work deadlines, business trips, birthday parties, countless extra curricular activities and piles of homework all have the tendency of keeping us busy “doing” and hardly ever able to simply “be”.

Enter the effective father. It is the father’s responsibility to lead his family; and part of leading them is to set the pace and create those spaces where the family can enjoy the things that truly matter. It is the father’s responsibility to put healthy rhythms in place – e.g. daily communal meal times, weekly off-days, monthly outings, yearly holidays. Children desperately need structure in their lives and it is the father’s job to create those structures and instill those rhythms that will strengthen the family as a whole; and its individual members.

  1. Effective fathers know when to say “no”

A significant shift in parenting has taken place over the last few decades. When I grew up the old maxim still held true – “children are to be seen and not heard”.  This was of course an unhealthy way of viewing and treating children, but I fear that our modern-day society has fallen off the other side of the horse. We live in a day and age where children have become the centre of their own universes. Everything revolves around them and parents are doing everything in their power to keep their children comfortable and happy and entertained.

I believe that this shift in our parenting has resulted in us raising up a whole generation of, well…brats. The problem with little brats is that one day they will have to step out into the big bad world and they will have to come to terms with the fact that life doesn’t really revolve around them. They will have to compete with a million other brats who also thought, and are fighting to be the centre of the universe.

The ‘effective father’ is wise enough not to keep playing this game. He grasps that the loving thing to do is to help his children come to grips with the fact that (in the words of The Rolling Stones) “you can’t always get what you want”. This lesson can daily be taught in a whole host of ways: not giving in every time the baby is throwing a tantrum, not allowing the toddler to grab a toy from his/her siblings, not allowing the child to interrupt a grownup conversation, not giving in every time the child is screaming in the shops for a sweet – even if you can afford to buy it!

  1. Effective fathers know when to say “sorry”

The ‘effective father’ is not the perfect father. Nobody is perfect, especially not dads. There are many times when we mess up. We get home from work tired and stressed and so often the children are on the receiving end of our frustrations. We lose our cool over minor incidents, we fail to keep our promises and when they ask us to play with them, we often say “no, not now, I’m busy” when we’re actually simply lazy or self-absorbed.

The effective father is however man-enough to own his own mistakes, weaknesses and shortcomings. He is willing to look silly in front of his kids and apologize for not loving them they way he ought to. He is humble enough to ask his children for forgiveness and patience as he seeks to be a better father. It is not the imperfect father, but rather the father who himself lives above the “house-rules”, that end up disillusioning his children.

  1. Effective fathers keep their marriage strong

It might sound like a cliché, but there is no greater gift a father can give his children than to keep working on his marriage. Children are way more perceptive than we would like to acknowledge and they are masters at sensing when there is tension between the parents.

Experienced schoolteachers will tell you that by merely looking at the work, demeanor and behaviour of their pupils, they can make an educated guess as to how things are going at home between the mom and the dad. My parents-in-law have been involved in working with prisoners for the last two decades now and they have observed a similar dynamic among inmates. What they found is what other prison workers around the world have also concluded, namely that a large proportion of inmates come from broken, or single parent (usually only a mom!) homes. Now this does not AT ALL mean that children who grow up in such circumstances are doomed forever, but it does reveal that there is a strong correlation between a healthy marriage and a healthy child. May we continue loving our children by continuing to love our wives!

Unlike the tips in Covey’s “The 7 Habits of highly effective people”, which might lead to you achieving business success and great financial riches, fostering the abovementioned habits will probably not get your face on the cover of ‘Time Magazine’! But that does not mean that you will not be wealthy! There is no man so wealthy as the man who has that which money can’t buy – namely happy, contented and well-grounded children who loves, and is loved by their father.

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