An oft-cited statistic in today’s media is that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 24 million children in the United States without a father.
Children without fathers in their lives are four times more likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to engage in criminal behavior, less likely to succeed in school, and more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness.
The statistics are staggering. We are facing a father absence epidemic that inevitably will negatively impact our future generations, but are these statistics implying an oversimplified solution? Is the solution to society’s ills as easy as stating that fathers remain a part of their children’s lives, even when they cannot stay in the home, as in cases of divorce or separation? The numbers suggest the answer to this question is yes, but I argue that this only ignores the complexity of the problem.
Yes, 24 million children have no father physically present in their lives, which implies that the other 50 million children do, and when we combine those numbers with the ones that correlate to health, wealth, and wellbeing, it can mislead us into believing those 50 million children are safe.
But are they?
What numbers do not show and cannot show without further research is the percentage of the 74 million children in the United States who have fathers who are mindfully presentin their children’s lives. There is much more to presence than keeping a seat warm. There are subtleties to presence involving a father’s mental, emotional, and spiritual state, in addition to the physical state of presence.
Mindful presenceis being present physically and, as Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn stated, is paying attention, on purpose, fully engaged and focused on the experience of the moment as it unfolds. Having defined this, I suggest that many of the 50 million children in the U.S. who have fathers in their homes are not much better off than the 24 million children who do not.
Why? There are both external and internal reasons for this.
The external reasons are easy to spot. We currently live in a media-saturated world that competes for our attention every second of the day. If you ever tell your child, who comes up to you to excitedly share a picture he just drew, “Just a second . . .” as you scroll through the Facebook news feed on your phone, then you have likely experienced this shift in priorities. Of course, I would be lying if I stated that I have never done this, because I have—often. This comes from operating on autopilot and allowing our attention spans to be monopolized by the allure of social media and connecting with others through a screen.
The internal reasons are considerably more difficult to identify. To figure out why fathers might subconsciously and unknowingly avoid spending time with their children requires a careful and reflective self-examination. Perhaps that’s the kind of home we grew up in, where being seen but not heard was the norm. Perhaps we are scared or intimidated because we don’t know what the right answers are, or for that matter, what the right questions are for us to be asking. After all, it is a well-known fact that parenting does not come with a simplified and easy-to-understand manual, especially for fathers.
Knowing the reasons for a lack of mindful presence can help us overcome barriers to achieving it, but here are some suggestions for developing and nurturing mindful presence in your relationship with your children:
- Begin keeping a regular journal. It can be loosely organized, such as jotting down your experiences and thoughts on experiences with your children, or it can be more structured, such as keeping a gratitude journal, where you spend time daily, writing down whatever you are grateful for. Either way, releasing your thoughts onto paper or onto a screen gets them outside your brain and allows you to analyze them and learn from them in a way that cannot be achieved by merely thinking your way through it.
- Set a date with your child and stick to it: a movie, lunch, ice cream, playing catch, going on an adventure, etc. Don’t let anything get in the way. On this date, allow your child to make all the decisions. Hand over the reins, let go, and watch their initiative unfold. Giving your child a sense of purpose can do wonders for the depth of your relationship.
- Go for a walk to nowhere. Grab your child and hit the road, without a plan. Walking aimlessly not only encourages conversation, but also physically enlarges your field of peripheral vision and engages your imagination.
- Take the time to tell stories. Tell your children stories of what life was like when you were their age. It helps them to understand that you were once like them. Tell them stories of when they were born, how they learned to walk, or what their first words were.
- Play. Go to the park and swing, cross the monkey bars, slide down the curly slide, and play freeze tag. Let go of all the seriousness that comes with being an adult and refresh your sense of childlike wonder. Go to the grocery store on a super-secret spy mission, all the while humming the theme song from Mission Impossible. Let go and laugh!
- Have your children help with making dinner (safely). Explain to them what each ingredient is, where it comes from, and who is responsible for getting it to your table. The more they know about their food and the more invested they are in creating it, the more mindful they will be while eating it.
Each of the above suggestions is designed to develop a culture of appreciation within the family dynamic. This shift comes with several benefits:
- Children as young as two or three years of age can and will notice your increased mindful presence, and the more of it they see, the more of it they will invite from you.
- Children of parents who invest themselves fully into the moment are more likely to develop strong initiative and a firmly embedded sense of purpose.
- Children who are taught to savor the moment grow up with less anxiety and stress, significantly reducing the chances for anger, depression, and substance abuse later in life.
- Children who spend time in mindful presence with their fathers defy statistics, so let us stop oversimplifying the problem.
Being a father is not merely a “there” or “not there” supposition. There is more to providing for our children than keeping a seat warm.
It’s time for fathers in America to invest more of themselves in their children’s futures, because if we want to be a part of their memories tomorrow, then we absolutely must be willing to play a more active role in their lives today.
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