Father Figures: Developing Those Important Male Relationships in Your Child’s Life
By: Pamela Brill
Marty Weiskott of Oak Ridge, N.J., knows his way around a workshop, crafting everything from wooden birdhouses to bookends. But it's the time he's spent with his young grandchildren, teaching them the tricks of the trade that he counts among his favorite experiences. "He had a woodworking workshop for [our granddaughter] Allie's girl scouts troop," says his wife Maria. "They learned to measure, hammer nails and use power tools." Favorite projects include a pair of stilts for Allie and birdhouses for grandchildren for Molly, age 4, and Elliott, age 6.
Bonding experiences between a child and an adult male—be it an uncle, older brother, grandfather or even a trusted family friend—can make a powerful impact in a child's life. By considering advice from the experts, new parents can help cultivate these father figure relationships for their child that can last well in adulthood.
Setting the Groundwork
Regardless of whether a child comes from a traditional nuclear family, with both mother and father living under the same roof, the benefits of having additional male role models are tremendously valuable. "If a child already has a good relationship with his own father, another male can be a different type of role model," explains Donna Gundy, an individual, marriage and family therapist based in Rye, N.Y. (www.ddgundylmft.com). "For instance, Dad may not be good at getting down on his hands and knees to play, so someone else can fill in that gap."
Boys aren't the only ones that can benefit from having adult male role models. "For girls, a brother, grandfather or uncle have an influence over how relationships work, what to look for in a future partner and what roles these girls can fill in an increasingly egalitarian world," says Jonathan Decker, a marriage and family therapist in Saint George, Utah (www.yourfamilyexpert.com).
Gundy agrees with this sentiment, stressing the profound effect that a male role model can have on a young girl. "She can develop a sense of self-esteem that a lot of young girls don't have and can learn to trust their own instincts," she says. Even at a young age, girls can reap the rewards of a strong relationship with a father figure. "Girls that experience this type of relationship in early childhood can go into adolescence more successfully," she adds.
For far-flung family members, having a local male relative can help fill a void, both physically and emotionally. Gundy notes a family in which the mom's father lived close by and was a regular fixture in her children's lives. "She had a fantastic relationship with her dad, and the kids wound up spending a lot of time with their grandfather," she says.
Cultivating Those Relationships
For young parents hoping to plant the seeds for these types of relationships between their child and male relatives, expert say the opportunities are endless and that the basics should not be overlooked. "Set aside time to play, talk and connect over the child's interests," offers Decker. "Put down the tech and do something outdoors."
For father figures in the making, use the time together to explore a child's likes—and be sure to check your own preferences at the door, especially if you don't share the same interests. "Don't push something on them just because; you may be an athlete, but maybe they're not," cautions Gundy. "Instead, being with a young child is the opportunity to widen their horizons and do something they may not have been able to experience yet."
And when you are out and about, proudly showing off your niece or nephew, it's also the right time to demonstrate how to be a good person. "Show them how to treat other people the right way, for instance, when you go out for a meal and are speaking to your waitress," says Gundy.
"Teach them values by example first and by words second," adds Decker.