Fatherhood and affirmation

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When I was younger, Dad and I used to go walking every morning and evening for fitness. We would discuss values and beliefs. He astounded me one evening by asking, “Do you think I’ve been a good father, son?”

“Yes Dad, you are a great dad to me,” was my heartfelt response. His question affirmed me as his friend and someone worthy of being asked such a question.

A fully engaged father, especially a biological father, teaches his children autonomy and a sense of competence. Regular and sincere affirmation is an especially important tool to ensure that children learn to successfully cope with life’s demands.

Many leadership studies state that affirmation is responsible for higher motivation in people. When searching the internet you’ll find a lot about personal affirmation, but little on a father’s affirmation. Mothers are significant in their children’s lives because of nurture—this insight was the basis of British psychologist John Bowlby’s “attachment theory” that he proposed in the 1960s. But how are fathers significant in their children’s lives? I believe this is through developing autonomy and competence, delivered through affirmation.

Karin and Klaus Grossmann completed a 16-year study with 44 families that showed a father’s sensitive but challenging play is a pivotal variable in a child’s life. The study describes autonomy and a sense of efficacy (competence) as important to be able to cope with life’s demands. The researchers proposed that the biological father is most responsible for this effect. In 2009, Jonathan Butner found in a study of diabetic children that a biological father is more likely than the mother to establish a child’s competence and autonomy in insulin self-administration.

I propose that it is through affirmation a father can encourage autonomy and competence in his children. For this to occur successfully a father must be connected regularly with his children.

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Affirmation is described by the Oxford dictionary as emotional support or encouragement. But how does one affirm? I believe the following is required:

• You must affirm your child in their personal “love language”, which differs for different children. Using Christian counsellor Gary Chapman’s categories, these love languages are affirming words, non-sexual sensitive touch, acts of service, gift giving and quality time.

• You should be facing the child in a one-on-one situation.

• You should never include any negative statement along with your affirmation. Yes, a time will come when a father needs to give further guidance and correction, but during an affirmation is not that time.

• You should affirm in the present tense—focus on what the child is doing right now, or at least as soon as possible after the fact. But never in the future tense—that can be threatening; it hasn’t happened yet.

• Use emotionally charged words—“I see that you are becoming more energetic and healthy since being on that diet. Well done.”

Affirmation is powerful. This is true for myself, my father, my children and it is true in sports teams. It’s confronting to watch one sportsperson berate another for a costly mistake. In 1982, Robert Vallerand wrote in the Journal for Sports Psychology that the results of his experiment showed that positive feedback increased an athlete’s motivation and feelings of competence. Once athletes interpret that the positive feedback resulted from their performances they experienced very high levels of competence.

My son James became the heavyweight karate champion of Australia in 2006. He wanted me at his competition because my presence affirmed him. After his championship bout he introduced me to everyone. He was proud that I was with him, just as much as I was proud of him.

In checking up on my hunches about affirmation, I asked my children if they remembered times I had affirmed them. My biological children and my foster children gave responses that were affirming to me! Some recalled events that I hadn’t even remembered. One, however, said my affirmations were really shallow. This was very confronting until I realised I had not affirmed them according to their love language—the way they instinctively wished to be affirmed.

For you, as a father, to be significant in your child’s life you must be connected to that child—you need to be around whenever you can, looking for opportunities to share experiences and conversations. Once you are connected you can affirm them. Remember that fathering is not about you, it’s about the child.


Patrick O’Neill has qualifications in psychology and management and is a father to six biological children, two stepchildren and more than 30 foster children. He lives on NSW’s Central Coast.

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