I have been a dad for over 14 years now.  My oldest just started High School and the youngest is just learning to put a few words together, his latest is “Frosty on?”  It’s so cute that we usually end up putting the Frosty the Snowman DVD in for him, but I am sure it won’t be so cute a month after Christmas.  I never would have guessed what a wild, stressful, challenging and rewarding ride it was going to be.  Every day brings new experiences (last week it was stitches in the tongue for my 7 year old).  Some things can only be learned through experience, but there are also some things I wish I would have been told when I was a new dad – or even before I was a dad at all.

There are many little tips, tricks and techniques that you need along the way for your job as a dad.  How to change a diaper, how to save for college, how to have a sex talk and many, many other things.  This is not a list of tips and tricks.  It is about is about mindset, priorities and long term success.  If you have the right mindset, chances are you’ll get the diaper changing and the sex talk right, but if you do screw up, it won’t matter as much because the rest of your house will be in order.

Alright, so let’s get to it.  Here are six characteristics of a great dad:

He Puts His Family First

This one is listed at the top for a reason.  You can say the other five are important to you, but when push comes to shove, if you choose yourself over your family, it doesn’t matter.  Their needs come first.  If you didn’t accept this responsibility when you got married, you definitely need to do it when the kids start arriving.  The toughest thing about this one is that if your family is first, you can’t do any better than second for yourself.

I don’t mean to say you should neglect yourself.  Your wife and kids need you, so it’s just the opposite.  You need to take care of you, so that you can take care of them.  You need to recharge your batteries, keep yourself healthy mental and physically, learn and grow up as a husband, dad and man.   Some of this comes from spending time with friends, from professional achievements and from other healthy recreational outlets.  The danger is crossing over the line into pure selfishness; doing some of these same things to stroke your own ego or indulge your appetites.  It is important to really check your motives.  Are you working hard for that promotion so you can pay for college, or is it really because of the bigger office or the BMW you have your eyes on?  There’s nothing wrong with achievement, just don’t neglect your real responsibilities and priorities to get there.

Your level of self sacrifice will vary over time.  It will depend on the number of kids you have, their age, their gender and their unique needs.  For years before we had kids and when my first two boys were very young, I would spend a week fishing in Canada with the guys.  Once my boys got a little older, I knew I couldn’t spend my valuable vacation time away from my family, so I stopped going on the fishing trip.  When they got old enough, I rejoined the Canada gang, but brought my boys along.

There are other things that try to trump your family as well.  I have friends who do counseling, volunteer or ministry work that have put their vocation ahead of their families at times.  These are good things, noble pursuits that are generally selfless.  I have a lot of respect for men who live to serve others.  But you still need to serve your family first.  Your family is the base of strength, the foundation from which you can help others, so do not neglect it.

He Loves His Wife

Your marriage is the most important relationship in your family.  If your children are a priority for you, you’ll make your wife a priority over them.  Having a strong marriage brings stability to your kids’ lives.  It brings peace to your home.  It models to your children what a healthy marriage relationship is.  It shows your boys how to treat a woman and your girls how they should expect to be treated by a man.

You and your wife are also partners in raising your kids.  You need to be on the same page with goals for them, with discipline, with choices about activities and schooling.  These are huge decisions that you need to make together.  Even a strong partnership will be tested at times.  You are sure to disagree on some things.  There will be times when you’re both tired and stressed.  You’ll be able to weather these times if you agree on the principles behind your parenting and have a strong relationship.  If you don’t, they will push your partnership to its limit sooner or later.

Take time to nurture your marriage.  It is the foundation of your family and you can’t build on a poor foundation.

I am well aware of how common divorce is.  If you’re already divorced, you can still apply this.  You are still a partner with your ex on parenting decisions.  You are still modeling relationships to your kids.  Don’t forget that she is still Mom to your kids.  There is no “ex-Mom”.  Treat her with respect.  Especially when she is not there.  There is nothing worse than disrespecting your kids’ Mom when she’s not there.

He is a Student of Fatherhood

Learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can about maintaining a strong marriage and raising children.  There are many resources available on all aspects of being a dad.  Not everything you learn will apply, but you need to build up your tool box of knowledge so you’re prepared as your kids grow.  Stay a few steps ahead of them.  Just as you’re reading a book about baby’s first year during pregnancy, you should be reading about adolescence when they are eight.

I also think it’s important to seek out different sources of information.  Some will be presented in a voice or format that really clicks with you, while others will not.  Don’t be discouraged if someone recommends a book and you get stuck on chapter 2.  Set it aside and get a different one.

You also need to connect with other dads.  Talk to them about their experiences and struggles, about their successes and failures.  Don’t be afraid to be open and honest, you’re not the only one to struggle with marriage and raising kids.  You should seek out older dads who you see as successful.  Ask them questions, pick their brains.  Tell them what you’re going through.  They will be a tremendous source of wisdom and encouragement and will be happy – even honored – to share their perspective with you.

Being a dad is more challenging that golf, football, business, career, hunting, fishing or any other thing you might pursue.  It is also a greater responsibility, so why wouldn’t you seek to improve your chance of success just like you would with these other things?

He Thinks Long Term

It is easy to be enthusiastic, optimistic and passionate about your growing family after the baby is born.  You look into those little, helpless, innocent eyes and vow you’ll love him forever and do anything for him.  You look at your wife and know you’ll forever be connected in bliss after sharing the joy of bringing that baby into your lives.  But this is just the beginning.  Your commitment will be tested over and over again in the coming weeks, months and years.  You are in this for the long haul.

This isn’t just about starting a 529 plan.  I am talking about strategic parenting.  It’s about having a vision for your family’s future.  You need to think ahead.  What do you dream for your child’s future?  What kind of adult do you want them to be?  What do they need to learn from you or others?  Establish your parenting philosophy guided by a vision shared with your wife.  With a long term vision, you will have a basis to make important decisions, rather than flying by the seat of your pants.

There has been a lot written in recent years about lifestyle design.  I love this discussion.  It’s all about evaluating your real priorities, your real goals and envisioning what life will be like when you have arrived.  Then you determine what actions to take now to move you in that direction.  It is the same with establishing a vision for your family.  If you do not do this proactively, popular culture, peer pressure, marketers and media will subliminally deliver a vision for you. They will tell you what will make you happy and what’s good for your kids and you’ll make decisions on their basis.  Don’t let this happen!

Having a vision for your family will give you the tools to think critically about the decisions you make.  Decisions about how you spend your time, what you expose your kids to, what you teach them, what activities they are in, values you instill and who they hang with.  Do not leave this to chance.

He Leads by Example

To be a great dad, you need to have your own act together.  You need to demonstrate with your actions what it means to be the responsible, mature adult that you want your kids to be someday.  You are the number one role model for them.  What you do, how you treat others, the way you spend your time and where you place your priorities will teach them more than your words will.  Your actions will speak even louder if they are not consistent with your words.

Kids begin to notice the way you carry yourself a lot sooner than you think.  They pick up on your habits at a very young age.  Although they may not even understand why, they begin to emulate what they see in you even when they are one year old.  I have friends who talk about being frustrated with their kids’ behavior, but then I see them do the same things.  Do as I say and not as I do will not work with kids.  Start working on changing those bad habits right now; don’t wait until you realize your kids are watching.

Not behaving badly is just the beginning though.  It’s also important to boldly model the things you value and want them to learn.  You should seek out opportunities to practice what you preach.  Go out of your way to show them you really mean it, especially when you know they’re watching.

He Loves Unconditionally

Your family needs to know you are there for them and will love them no matter what.  You should have high expectations for your kids, but your love for them should not depend on whether or not they meet those expectations.  They need to know you love them and you are proud of them no matter what.  There are so many adults still striving to earn the love of their parents. You may know some people like this, or even be one yourself.  They may not realize it, but often their drive to succeed as adults is fueled by the need to win their parents love.  Don’t let your kids become one of them.

This may seem obvious when your kids are very young, but once they are in school, in sports or playing an instrument, it is easy for your high expectations to come across as conditions of your love.  Be careful not to tell them you love them only after they score a touchdown or get straight As.

They also need to feel free to explore their own interests and discover their own passions.  You need to cheer just as loudly at the football game as the chess competition – well, maybe not, but you get the idea.

Being a great dad is not easy.  It requires hard work and self sacrifice.  You need to be intentional about it.  It is the most important responsibility you will ever have in life.  However, you have in your power the ability to have a positive and lasting influence not only on your children, but their children.  I congratulate you on seeking out and reading this article, your heart is already in the right place.

Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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