The average married father spends about seven hours a week looking after his kids, according to research from the University of Maryland. That’s a sliver of time that can quickly disappear into work emails or Game of Thrones marathons. So the last thing you need is a guilt-inducing list of to-dos designed to make your son or daughter a Tolstoy-reading prodigy at age eight. The secret to being a great father isn’t finding more time; it’s making better use of the time you have.
1/ Muck Around
Backyard wrestling matches help kids control hyperactivity. Roughhousing also gives you a chance to teach very young children that biting, kicking and other forms of physical violence aren’t okay.
2/ Own Your Lack of Cool
Kids can spot a fake and would rather roll their eyes at your off-key Eddie Vedder than at your failed attempt to riff Macklemore, says psychiatrist Dr Kyle Pruett, author of Fatherneed. Steadiness and authenticity will earn their admiration over time.
3/ . . . and Your Nerdy Side
Bust out the photos of your mullet and porn-tache. Being comfortable with your imperfections telegraphs confidence. When your son or daughter dishes it out, laugh it off and give it back. Good-natured banter is fine, as long as your kids still respect you.
4/ Read Like You Mean It
You may be bored by your 297th reading of Goodnight Moon, but your kids aren’t – and they’ll be better off if you get into the story, suggests research from Boston University. Reading in an engaging voice appears to make a difference in promoting childrens’ literacy and language development.
5/ Don’t Move Bedtime
Tucking in the kids at inconsistent times can hurt their cognitive development. In a University College London study, researchers tracked nearly 10,000 children and found a link between irregular bedtimes at age three and lower scores in maths, reading and spatial development at age seven.
6/ Sign on for Swimming Lessons
The shallow end of life is brief; it gets deep really fast. No wonder a Griffith University study found that children who learned to swim at a young age were more physically and mentally advanced than their peers.
7/ Schedule Sick Days
Save a few “sick” days for spontaneous fun, Pruett says. Unplugging is critical, and you both need to connect with something deeper than wi-fi. Homework can be made up and co-workers can get on with it for a day.
8/ Praise Effort, Not Ability
By emphasising the value of resolution over talent, you can help your children dream up strategies for improvement, and they might even end up preferring tasks that are more challenging. The next time your son or daughter does well on a school project, say “I’m proud of how hard you worked” instead of “You’re such a smart kid – I knew you’d get a good mark”.
9/ Keep Lots of Books Around
The mere presence of books crammed on a shelf – whether or not they’re actually read – can translate to an intellectual boost, a University of Nevada study found. Having 500 or more books in the home is as great an advantage for a kid as having university-educated parents, and twice that of having a dad who’s a professional rather than an unskilled labourer.
10/ Let Them Get Dirty
Laugh if they jump into a puddle with their shoes on. Applaud their mud slides. Children – boys and girls alike – love dirt. Let them do something that will require some serious hosing down afterwards. Better yet, join in. They’ll remember it as one of their greatest days ever.
11/ Break the Occasional Rule
Important distinction: a rule, not a law. Let them occasionally eat dessert for breakfast or stay up to watch the final quarter. Be consistent and fair, says Pruett, but also show some flexibility and have a bit of fun.
12/ Befriend Their Friends
Ask your kids’ friends about their holiday plans, whether the band teacher favours the woodwinds and what footy team they support. Listen closely to the intel they share – it will help you understand what your own children are up to when you’re not watching.
13/ Teach ’Em the Three Laws to Live By
Being a kid is hard enough; they shouldn’t feel like they live in a police state. There are only three rules they need to thrive in a civilised society: 1) don’t stand in front of a TV when an adult is watching; 2) get a second opinion before tweeting anything; and 3) never, ever, ever beat dad at table tennis.
14/ Walk in Kindness
Never scream in your own house unless there’s a fire. Don’t even hint at violence. And never kick the family pet – especially the goldfish. Repeat aloud: “Every dog is a good dog.” And mean it because it’s true.