A year after my divorce, my son Luke decided to come and live with me. At the age of 12 he was a big, strong boy, tall and solidly built. He played rugby, loved riding motor bikes and was a real boy in every way. Yet I also noticed a tenderness and vulnerability in him. More than that, there was a cry, a yearning for masculine nurture. For several weeks after moving in with me, Luke would creep into my bed late at night and just hold on to me tightly. It’s hard to explain what passed between us during those prolonged, poignant hugs, but it was profound and beautiful.
I didn’t have to say anything; he was drawing substance from me, almost by osmosis. I was his rock, his anchor. I was the source of masculinity and strength for his developing manhood. No matter what I was experiencing inside, no matter what challenges I was facing, I was Luke’s dad and he needed me. He had questions that I needed to answer. His young developing masculine soul needed to draw from a man and that man was me, his father.
This was a revelation to me. I realised how much my son needed me, and the impact that I as a father would have on him – for good or bad. I realised that there was a window of opportunity for me to give Luke what he needed and I realised that my willingness and ability to do this would quite possibly be the single biggest influence on his development as a man.
Fatherhood matters deeply, profoundly and undeniably. Any man who becomes a father needs to take this responsibility-laced privilege very seriously. And this applies equally to girls and boys. The questions that my daughter Blythe needed me to answer differed slightly from Luke’s but she needed my presence, love and consistent input just as much as her brother did.
Fathers are the most powerful and important men in their children’s lives. Every boy longs to be mentored by his father; every girl longs to be adored by her dad. A father is his daughter’s first romance and his son’s first hero. He is their first, most important experience of who and what a man is. What we expose our children to, and what we teach them through our lives, words, actions and interactions imparts to them their very sense of self, the inner fabric that will equip them for confidence and success or fear and failure. The words we share with them in their formative years become their inner voice as adults.
Being the most important man in someone’s life is a privilege that comes with profound responsibilities. Your children will come to you to answer the deepest questions of their hearts. Throughout their developing years they will ask you a thousand times and in a thousand different ways to answer key questions about themselves that no-one else can answer quite like you can. Questions about their identity, their value, their validity.
Your son will want to know what it means to be a man and whether he has what it takes. Your daughter will want to know if she is worth fighting for, if you delight in her. Answer well and you will lay an unshakeable foundation for your children’s emotional well-being and character. Answer badly or don’t answer at all and you will wound them and quite possibly set them up for a lifetime of emotional struggle.
Every father influences the lives of his children forever. That’s a given. Whether this impact is for good or for harm is the choice every father has to make. Very few men set out to deliberately harm their children, yet most men struggle to give their children all they need, mainly because they didn’t receive what they needed from their own fathers. Most adults carry some hurt from their relationship with their fathers whether they are conscious of it or not.
Some of these wounds are blatant and debilitating, such as when physical or sexual abuse has taken place, but most are subtle, caused by a father being absent, or present but not engaged; being emotionally unavailable or distant; not seeing, nurturing and validating; wanting their children to be something different to what they are; being too strict or too laissez-faire. The list is long. These wounds don’t destroy but they damage. They affect the ability of their children to be fully alive. They erode their self-esteem and subtly but significantly affect the important life choices they make as adults.
Being a great father doesn’t just happen. It takes a deliberate commitment and consistent action. It cannot be outsourced or delegated; it must be handled personally. Just as a safe can only be opened by the key specifically designed for it, you as a father hold the key to unlock the potential in your child’s life.
The wonderful thing about being a dad is that we all get to be a hero. Of course, this means that we have to live up to some pretty high expectations. But that’s okay, because every dad has it in him to be a hero to his children. And if we get it right we leave our children with a priceless gift. Impressed into their psyche and souls is the knowledge of a man as a strong, loving sanctuary, a place where there is safety and fun and affirmation. And they will live their lives out of this reservoir of grace and strength. Our sons are more likely to grow up honourable men, treating women with respect and caring for their own families. Our daughters are more likely to grow up as women of stature, making good choices and building strong families of their own.
The world is crying out for men who will step up to the plate and be great fathers. And it’s not difficult, the two most important words in a dad’s lexicon are: “Be There”.