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Becoming a dad can be scary. Here’s how to be the best father for your kids

IT is natural to feel apprehensive about the responsibilities that come with parenthood – the financial obligations, the emotional and practical support, and the lifelong commitment. And parenting takes many forms. In my case I became a father for the first time in 2013. In my new role, I was forced to weave together my academic expertise – I research fatherhood and early childhood and development, among other things – with real life.

Entering fatherhood was a profound and transformative experience. From the moment conception was confirmed, I faced many emotions. Amid the joy and anticipation, there was fear. I had concerns about my capabilities as a father, the responsibilities, and the unknown.

Rather than viewing fear as a barrier, though, I embraced it as a catalyst for growth and understanding. The fear of becoming a father is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s a testament to the magnitude of the role. It is natural to feel apprehensive about the lifelong responsibilities that come with parenthood.

In this article I want to highlight what my research and others’ reveal about the importance of paternal involvement – from conception through pregnancy to childbirth and beyond, regardless of a father’s relationship status with their children’s mothers. Involved dads play a crucial role in their children’s lifelong well-being.

Pregnancy and prenatal care

The prenatal period is a time of immense physical and emotional changes for both expectant mothers and fathers. Mums-to-be need financial, emotional and practical support every step of the way.

Research I’ve conducted with my colleagues shows that an involved dad can encourage mothers to seek antenatal care earlier, eat more healthily, exercise more, and avoid alcohol, drug abuse and smoking.

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Fathers’ unwavering emotional and practical support for their partner is so important during the ups and downs of pregnancy. From offering words of encouragement to simply being a compassionate listener, fathers can help alleviate stress and anxiety, fostering a sense of security and stability for their partner and unborn child.

And it’s also never too early for fathers to bond with their unborn children. Talking, reading and playing music can strengthen the father-child relationship even before birth.

Infancy and early childhood

Fathers also remain enormously important in the period after childbirth. Research has shown that fathers influence vital decisions like whether women breastfeed, how long they breastfeed, and how soon they register their infant’s birth.

They nurture their children’s emotional, cognitive and social development in many ways. Caregiving tasks like cuddling (kangaroo care, when babies are held skin-to-skin with a parent or carer), soothing, feeding, bathing, nappy changing and bedtime routines all strengthen the father-infant bond. They also promote a strong foundation of trust, attachment and secure relationships.

Fathers’ involvement in play and exploration activities stimulates children’s curiosity, creativity and problem-solving skills. From peek-a-boo and tickling games to building blocks and puzzles, fathers can help shape their children’s social skills, emotional resilience and self-confidence. Outdoor adventures, such as nature walks and playground outings, provide opportunities for fathers and children to explore the world together, fostering a sense of wonder and discovery.

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Middle childhood and adolescence

Middle childhood and adolescence are marked by transitions and milestones: starting and changing schools, navigating friendships, and developing one’s identity. Fathers provide guidance, mentorship, reassurance, perspective and emotional support to their children throughout. All of this helps children shape their attitudes, values and behaviours, as well as resilience and coping skills.

This is a time when children develop their interests and hobbies, giving fathers opportunities to connect through shared activities – playing sports, exploring nature, or enjoying music or art. Dads who are actively involved in education, extracurricular activities and hobbies are showing a commitment to their children’s success and well-being.

Fathers who maintain open communication and establish trustful relationships with their children also create a supportive environment where teenagers feel comfortable seeking guidance and advice.

Young adulthood

The transition from adolescence to young adulthood is another important phase in a child’s life. During this period the role of fathers also evolves. But their influence remains profound.

In this stage, involved fathers provide stability, guidance and emotional support as their children make decisions about education, career paths and relationships. By offering mentorship, encouragement and a listening ear, fathers empower their young adult children to pursue their passions, overcome obstacles, take up opportunities and achieve their goals.

By providing opportunities for autonomy and decision-making, fathers can empower their children to take ownership of their lives and pursue their goals with confidence.

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Fathers take pride in celebrating the accomplishments and milestones of their young adult children, whether it is graduating from college, starting a career, or embarking on new adventures. Offering praise, support and encouragement affirms your children’s achievements. It helps them to feel proud and confident in their abilities.

Perhaps most importantly, fathers can continue to serve as role models for their young adult children, demonstrating qualities such as integrity, resilience and compassion. By living their values and leading by example, fathers inspire their children to emulate these traits and become the best versions of themselves.

A legacy of love

I cannot overstate how important it is for children to have an involved father. From conception to adulthood, fathers play a vital role in shaping the lives of their children through active participation, emotional support and unwavering commitment. By nurturing strong father-child attachment, fathers contribute to the growth, resilience and happiness of their children. This creates a legacy of love and connection that transcends time and generations.

TAWANDA MAKUSHA, Chief Research Specialist, Human Sciences Research Council

By TAWANDA MAKUSHA

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