Many divorced and remarried dads have deep insecurities about their new parenting roles, as if a dad's relevance is directly proportionate to the minutes and hours he spends with his children. But all dads are dads 100% of the time, just as all moms are still moms 100% of the time. The title is permanent, but the job itself can be tricky, especially after a divorce.
While plenty of dads know that quality of parenting time is more important than length of parenting time, many misinterpret "quality of time" to mean that, to make the most of those minutes, they must be a wish-granting genie, the world's greatest playmate, an indentured servant, or a money tree.
What I've found -- using myself and my kids as research subjects -- is that a dad's most important role is simply to be the authentic dad he is. To illustrate, here are five specific realizations I've made as a result of time spent (Saturdays mostly) with my three kids as they grew from ages 8, 5, and 5 when I got divorced in 2007 to a taller and wiser 16, 13, and 13 in the present day.
1. Focus on the impression you make.
Think for a moment about your own dad. What's the first thing that comes to mind -- a specific moment, or a general quality like support, protection, or love? Likely it's the latter. When I think about my dad, the concept of "sacrifice" comes to mind much more quickly and powerfully than the day he helped me build a birdhouse for Cub Scouts.
This tells us that the long-term impression a dad makes has more overall impact than the short-term joys he delivers. Because of that, a dad shouldn't punish himself too hard for making a mistake (like being too angry), nor worry too much about setting up "the perfect day." What's more important is consistently showing support, giving encouragement, patiently listening, and actively participating. And none of those require a credit card, a sunny day, a long weekend, or assistance from Mom.
2. Do things with them they don't do often in their other home.
My ex hates mall shopping, pop culture, and corporate chain restaurants. Meanwhile, I love mall shopping, pop culture, and corporate chain restaurants. And do you know who else loves those things? My kids. As a result, I get to enjoy moments with them they would never do otherwise... like discussing the merits of Arianna Grande at the mall's Cheesecake Factory.
(For those of you who don't know, Arianna Grande is not a large Italian cheesecake).
Finding these unique and exclusive delights -- whether it's mall shopping, mountain biking, fishing, cooking, or playing board games -- may not always be easy, but it's worth the effort. When dads own these shared experiences, they're creating very distinct and positive memories for their kids' futures.
3. Have them be part of your life.
It's important for kids to know their dads have lives, just like their moms do. So dads should incorporate the kids into their normal routines. This means having them tag along on errands, matching work socks, washing dishes, helping build IKEA furniture, and making sandwiches. In many ways it can be a better bonding experience than going to an amusement park or concert -- Do dads really want to compete with Olaf and Taylor Swift for their kids' attention?
The only hard and fast rule for dads is to do these projects with their children. The kids will learn not only that Dad has a day-to-day life, but that they have an important role in it.
4. Know that inexpensive things can have priceless bonding value.
I've never seen my kids happier than...
...when we buy carbonated beverages at a discount store, bring them outside to the parking lot, take turns shaking and tossing them violently, then open them quickly and watch them explode.
Cost per kid: Roughly a dollar.
...when we bring needed supplies to an animal shelter.
Cost per kid: 0.
...when I arm each kid with a dollar or two and set them free in a dollar store.
Cost per kid: One or two dollars.
Local websites and town newspapers often list free activities for kids, so some pre-planning is helpful. But the key breakthrough for dads is understanding that worthwhile experiences do not have to empty his wallet.
5. Make sure everyone is having fun.
My kids and I don't go to Chuck E. Cheese. We don't see ridiculously silly movies. We don't go on educational field trips. Not because they don't want to, but because I don't want to. If they're having fun and I'm not, it's not much better than me having fun while they're not.
A father's time and experiences with his kids are shared, so the fun should be shared too. And kids are thrilled when they see their parents enjoying the same experience they're enjoying.
So find ways to laugh with them, and absolutely avoid any activity during which you're likely to spend more time engaging your smart phone than enjoying your offspring.
Originally published in Stepmom Magazine.
A nationally-published essayist, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of the award-winning "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" and the recently-released "Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow".