A father’s connection with his children brings contentment to the child and also reduces anxiety in the father. But connection is not the child’s responsibility. Dads, can I suggest that you value connection as your responsibility. I remember well falling out with one of my children. He was very angry at something that had happened, as well as disappointed that I had not fixed it. I decided to let him alone for a while. I discussed this situation with my brother after a few weeks. He reprimanded me: “You’re the father—you break the ice!” I rang my son and he was so happy I’d called—it was the key moment in our reconciliation that might never have occurred if I had not taken the initiative.
I have been a foster parent since 2007. Since then, I’ve heard too many sad stories of biological fathers not responding to my foster children’s search for them. Biological parents have no idea how much their children need them. All parents underestimate and misread their children’s communications. Statistics reported by the Daily Mail in 2013 were that 75 per cent of divorced parents said their children coped okay with the divorce. However, 72 per cent of those children stated they did not cope well at all.
I remember setting up a father/son meeting at our foster care agency’s address for a certain date. The 16-year-old boy and I turned up 30 minutes early because he really wanted to be there on time. The father never attended and did not call. The anger and disappointment was deafening.
There are happy stories, however. One boy came to us, having never met his biological father. Yet he expressed a desire to do so, even though his mother’s explicit wish was that this should never occur. After consulting the child welfare authorities, who were in favour of a meeting between father and son, we agreed to begin a search. My investigations turned out to be fruitless, but I was contacted by child welfare a month later—they had found the father and he was willing to meet up. We set a Saturday for this to occur. When the father turned up to our church he was welcomed, yet his 15-year-old son was reserved. His father had been a NASCAR mechanic, so when they began discussing cars the son soon opened up. They still have a relationship to this day.
Get to know your child
All children want to know why they exist. A relationship with you will give them a clue as to why. Find out the child’s passions and talk about them. If one of your passions matches theirs then there is a connection. Know their birthdays, but don’t be Santa Claus. Children can become very shallow very quickly.
Finally, children want to know why you wanted them. You, Dad, are 50 per cent of that creation—that is why they want and need to know you. How many TV series have been spawned on this idea? One of my favourites is SBS’s genealogical reality show Who Do You Think You Are? I’m always amazed at the pride shown by people when they find out an ancestor has been a great man or woman. I’m never surprised at the shame they feel when they find out an ancestor was a murderer or slave trader.
Your history is important
My children were so impressed when they found out that their great-grandfathers had fought in the First World War. They wanted to know how they were related, through me, to those men. One great-grandfather fought in Gallipoli. Another great-grandfather fought with the French Foreign Legion. One grandfather was a tank mechanic; uncles and cousins were officers in the army. This knowledge connected the children to me because of the historical relationship through me. It also gave these children a sense of pride in themselves.
Teach your child
Today’s children get so much of their education from the internet, yet the internet cannot teach hard work or resilience. Parents will be the only ones to teach the child the “higher” values such as kindness, empathy and gratitude. When you engage and connect with your child according to their individual emotional style, you will also discover their cognitive passions and interests. Analyse your child’s passions and then teach them how to best use those passions in life. If you’re uncomfortable with a younger child playing first-person killing video games, stop them, yet be prepared to explain why. Teach maths and English (and their native tongue if appropriate). This will be difficult and that’s okay—you can teach your child resilience and hard work.
When I first met one of our foster children I was expecting him to be intellectually slow. However, I found a child with a passion for sport to the point where he knew a long list of players’ names and specific statistics. Whenever there is a discipline issue we reconnect through discussing sport—it breaks the ice immediately. I’m also able to teach him humility during these connecting times. Too many young boys “know everything”—I demonstrate humility by readily admitting when I don’t know a particular fact.
Disrespect comes too easily. Children are made up of yours and their mother’s DNA. There is nothing they can do about that, even if your relationship with their mother is difficult or permanently ended. So do not disrespect their mother’s family tree—it does nothing in the end but insult the child. However, you can judge disrespectful and dangerous behaviours without mentioning any names. Even if the child complains about a specific family member, can I advise you not to make comment on the person? Continue analysing the behaviour only.
Lost and found
Good Men Project editor Lisa Blacker identifies as a fatherless daughter—growing up she was obstructed from having any contact with her dad at all. She says she wishes her father had kept a diary or notebook of letters to her during this time. When she was finally able to make contact she could have read these messages and understood how much her dad had loved her, and still loves her. If you’re a dad in a similar position, feeling helpless and unable to make a positive difference in your child’s life right now, this is something practical you can do. Every time you think of your child and wish you could offer help, comfort, or advice, write, video or otherwise record a message to them in your own words.
Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, is about depression. However, the power of human connection can, in many cases, enable a person to outgrow depression. Hari states that depression can be amplified by a bad job, a poor or no relationship with parents, no values, childhood trauma, a lack of respect and no hope for the future. But anything that lifts you from despair, while it shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for prescribed medication, can have an antidepressant effect. You, Dad, can be that antidepressant for your children by being connected with them as much as you’re able. Take them camping, help them find a job, give them respect, teach them values and believe in their bright future.
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.