There often are discussions about dads, particularly around this time of year, concerning what makes a good dad. What counts as great fathering. But what if we took it back a notch and just asked the question: what can dads do? We might be surprised with the answers we arrive at.
In anticipation of Father's Day on Sunday, I stumbled across a book, which I then read to my students on the topic of animal dads. A great overview of animal fathers in the wild, the book told how these dads then contribute to the lives of their offspring. For instance, there is a type of fish called a cichlid, which will hold its babies inside its mouth if enemy approaches and then releases them when the danger has passed. "Gross," said my little kindergartners. Fascinating was the word which came to mind for me. Animal dads are an amazing study of responsible parenting at its best.
Some of the ways animal fathers do the work of parenting are very much like those seen in human fathers, as both can be seen protecting their young, sheltering them, providing for them, playing with them, and cleaning and feeding them. The book also mentions watching over them while the mothers are away (referring to such as babysitting, but which I would clarify so as to call it simply parenting).
And yes, there are even animal dads found giving birth to their young. Okay, maybe that one is a tad bit different than in humankind -- although mothers certainly wouldn't be opposed if the marvels of modern science were able to come up with the option. Human dads may be not so much in favor, but it's my humble opinion that nature has us beat on that one.
As I was reading this book, I was struck by the varied ways in which animal dads offer their children compassionate, loving care. Care offered in many of the very same ways human fathers tenderly care for their own beloved boys and girls. So with the inspiration gained from having read this book, and with Father's Day in mind, I am offering five unique ways in which human dads can care for their children, in no certain order.
1. Human dads can read to their children. And I have found that when dads do choose to read to their kids, kids are more inclined to read for pleasure themselves. As dads are interested in a variety of topics, there is bound to be something that will strike a chord, enabling conversation to flow from the launch pad of a great read. When my own kids were young, their dad would have two on either side and at least one on his lap. I still can conjure up this comforting image in my mind even now, many years later; it brings me joy at the thought of it.
2. Human dads can talk to their children. About stuff that matters, as well as stuff that's just meant to be for fun. The other night, husband and son were out scraping the old paint off the house in preparation for repainting our home this summer. At bedtime prayers, my son mentioned he was most thankful for the time he had to talk to his dad during their work together outside. I later asked my husband what they talked about, and he replied with a bit of perplexity, "not much." But after talking it over for a bit ourselves, we both realized it isn't what had been said, it's that something had been said that really matters. That's what will be remembered long after the conversations end.
3. Human dads can stimulate their children's thinking. One thing I have appreciated about my kids' dad is his quiet, unassuming manner when it comes to challenging our children's thinking -- emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. My husband thoughtfully fosters their thinking through listening and waiting, allowing for conversation to flow in as natural a way as possible. In thinking through issues, the solutions are gained not from imposing standards and expectations that are rigid and exacting, but through providing an example of how one can live their life. From there, he allows for time and availability so as to follow through when children are arriving at the answers to their own questions. Making sure that patience and grace are the foundations upon which to build the instruction that has been given.
4. Human fathers have the rare opportunity to both create and then leave a legacy for their children. What that legacy becomes remains to be seen through the lasting impression dads leave with their children. All dads provide a legacy, rightly or wrongly, for their children. How their children arrive at the understanding of this legacy is based on the ways in which the father conveys his message through his actions, his words and his belief systems. All fathers (and mothers, for that matter) leave a legacy for their children, whether they realize this truth or not. So it matters what one believes and how they then live out those beliefs: children are watching. They notice how we live our lives.
5. Human fathers are capable of offering love in deep ways, deeper than one is able to believe that animal dads would be equipped to offer love. There is no doubt that animal dads have a level of commitment and affection for their children: love can be observed the world over, in both human and animals alike. But human fathers have the rare opportunity of showing their offspring unconditional, sacrificial love, a love exhibited by one willing to put himself on the line, if circumstance required that of him. A love that is willing to think through the cost and then make the sacrifice required. No better example of this can be given than the recent deaths of three fathers in the line of duty. One could say they were not only acting for the good of all human kind, but also for the good of their own six children they've now collectively left behind. Love like this is inspirational.
I will never fully understand the bond that fathers have with their children. Strong as it is between a mother and her children, there is something uniquely special about the father-child relationship. And while it is true that not every father has done the five things I have listed above, the truth of the matter is that most can do some of those five, should they so choose.
Perhaps the thing that most defines animal and human dads in their parenting role is the level to which both can be actively involved in their children's upbringing. Being a good dad doesn't mean one must aim for perfection. While human perfection itself is a myth, involvement is a certain possibility. A perfect possibility. And being an involved dad is about as close to perfect in a child's eyes as they would ever come to expect. When dads take time to read, talk, stimulate, create and love, there is no telling the ways which they will then have of influencing their sons and daughters to being the best people they can be.
It's what dads can do best: be there for their kids.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: