Richard Daly, DMin, is communications and media director for the British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Watford, Hertfordshire, England.

My wife often said that she had four children in the house. (We have three.)

Becoming a child and frolicking with my children turned out to be one of my best stress releasers. I had permission to do silly things—roll around on the ground, play tag, and make funny sounds. All of this elicited the one thing I often neglected to do—laugh. So, for me, being a playful father was more therapeutic than anything else life had to offer. And the benefits for the child-father relationship were huge.

Today, my boys are all teenagers. Being a playful father requires a different type of playfulness now. But the building blocks of a firm relationship through fun and laughter and doing things together remain etched in their memory. One such memory occurred just last Christmas—visiting a theme park and riding on the roller coasters.

When the boys were younger, I would take them during the summer holidays, but they were too short to ride the roller coasters with me. Now well over the minimum height, they all wanted to go and insisted that I accompany them. “Come on, Dad,” they said. “Or are you afraid, in your old age?” Those words pricked me, so I rose to the challenge. Needless to say, I was all too glad when the ride was over. In the process, I discovered that I had now created a new breed of roller-coaster junkies who insisted that I experience the thrill with them on every ride.

The positive effects

An article in the Belfast Telegraph1 reports that researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London, and Oxford University examined how fathers interacted with their children and then measured cognitive development. Children whose fathers displayed more withdrawn and depressed behavior when the children were three months old scored lower in brain tests that included recognizing colors and shapes. “The clear message for new fathers here is to get stuck in and play with your baby.”2 Many similar reports almost seem to confirm that playing with your child brings a wealth of future positive results that even far outweigh the present joyful experience.

The emotional effects

Being a playful father also greatly helps a child’s emotional development, a dynamic that, according to researchers Paul Roberts and Bill Moseley, “becomes more pronounced as father-child relationships enter their second and third years. When playing, fathers tend to be more physical with their toddlers—wrestling, playing tag, and so on—while mothers emphasize verbal exchanges and interacting with objects, like toys. In nearly all instances, . . . fathers are much more likely ‘to get children worked up, negatively or positively, with fear as well as delight, forcing them to learn to regulate their feelings.’

“In a sense, then, fathers push children to cope with the world outside the mother-child bond. . . .

“First, children learn how to ‘read’ their father’s emotions via his facial expressions, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues, and respond accordingly. . . .

“Second, children learn how to clearly communicate their own emotions to others,”3 such as by crying, not responding, or wandering off. “Finally, children learn how to ‘listen’ to their own emotional state. For instance, a child soon learns that if he becomes too ‘worked up’ and begins to cry, he may in effect drive his play partner away.

“The consequences of such emotional mastery are far-reaching.”4 Therefore, there are links between the quality of father-child interactions and a child’s later development of certain life skills, including an ability to manage frustration, a willingness to explore new things and activities, and persistence in problem solving.

The social effects

Just as important as learning to regulate the emotional intensity of their interactions is children’s ability to develop interactive social communication. Roberts and Moseley maintain that “ ‘Kids who learn how to decode and encode emotions early on will be better off later when it comes to any social encounter.’ ”5

They have also studied such benefits in the area of sibling relationships, concluding: “The emotion-management ‘lessons’ learned by children from their fathers during play are later applied in interactions with siblings—and ultimately with people outside the family—and lead to more cooperation and less fighting.”6

The negative effects

The researchers found that, stereotypically, “while a mother’s more intimate, need-related approach to parenting generally continues to cement her bond with her children, a father’s more playful and stimulating style steadily loses its appeal. By the age of eight or nine, a child may already be angry at his father’s teasing, or bored or annoyed by his I’m-gonna-gitcha style.

“This discrepancy often becomes quite pronounced as children reach adolescence. Research suggests that preteens and teens of both sexes continue to rely on their mothers for intimacy and needs, and increasingly view her as the favored parent in areas requiring sensitivity and trust. By contrast, . . . the joking, playful style that serves fathers so well during children’s first years may begin to alienate teens, giving them the impression that their father doesn’t take their thoughts and needs seriously.”7

Here are examples of practical play activities to strengthen the bond with your child:

 

  • Blow on each other’s bellies.
  • Give your child a piggyback or shoulder ride.
  • Twirl, spin, or toss them. Such things can all be done anytime, anywhere.
  • Help them do a handstand, headstand, cartwheel, or somersault.
  • Pretend to be a horse (or another animal) and let your child ride on your back.
  • Have a race! Don’t let them win every time.
  • Climb trees together.
  • Roll down hills.
  • Go sledding.
  • Throw them up into the air and catch them
  • Play in the rain and jump in puddles.
  • Play with a Hula-Hoop or jump rope.
  • Play some tennis, basketball, football, soccer, dodgeball, or volleyball.
  • Throw around a Frisbee.

“It’s hypothesized that fathers’ less intimate interactive style may make it easier—although not more pleasant—for them to play the ‘heavy.’ In any case, adolescents come to see their fathers as the harsher, more distant parent.”8

“Clearly, the distance between fathers and adolescent children is not solely a result of fathers’ playfulness earlier on. A central function of adolescence is a child’s gradual movement toward emotional and physical autonomy from both parents.”9

“Even the most dedicated dads quickly discover that the road to modern fatherhood is strewn with obstacles. . . . Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, says understanding your relationship with your own father is the first step. If not, you’re bound to automatically and unconsciously replicate things from your childhood.”10

Infuse fun

There is just something special about active play that creates happy, genuine feelings and memories. I have learned that creating fun activities does not require taking children to major events or spending a lot of money. It’s the simple things—let them ride on your back, bounce them on your knee, race with them into stores, sing silly songs together. Take advantage of everyday things that you already do, such as taking your kids to school, eating together, getting them ready for bed, and then imbue them with a bit of creative playfulness. Forget the to-do lists momentarily and add some levity into your otherwise-stressful parenting.

Quality time

As a multichurch pastor, I constantly had to reevaluate my time. This became more apparent to me one evening when I was out on a pastoral visit. Halfway through the visit, the father asked to be excused, saying that he had to get his children ready for bed and tell them a bedtime story. After that visit, I determined to make significant changes to my pastoral schedule, keeping as many evenings free as possible for my family.

Many fathers assume that as long as they can get a few hours’ quality time at the end of the week with their children, it will make up for the absent hours during the rest of the week. While such longer hours are a welcomed treat, research has shown that shorter but more consistent periods each day with children have more rewarding results. When it comes to the question of whether quality or quantity time is better, then both would be just as important.

Too often today, we have not only distant fathers but also single mothers having to raise children with little or no fatherly support. Fathers who have no other option than to be a father outside the child’s home need a different approach to becoming that playful father. What’s just as important for children when playful activities are limited is knowing their father is present in their lives whether through special days out or communicating through the many avenues of today’s technology. The child’s mind registers such efforts to reach out as significant acts of love and care.

A study published by The Academy of Management Perspectives in 2015 suggested that working fathers who spend more time with their children will have greater levels of job satisfaction than those who don’t. The report went on to say that men who pay attention to their families will become less focused on their work but not to the detriment of their careers.11 In contrast, significant evidence indicates that the children of fatherless homes are more likely to have disciplinary issues in later life.

A study published in 2006 stated that “even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections with peers. These children are also less likely to get into trouble at home, school, or in the neighborhood.”12 Fathers who find themselves separated from their children, therefore, can still have a positive influence when they make efforts to stay involved with the child and make good use of the time that is spent with them.

Engaging play

How can fathers still engage and play with teenage children caught up in a whole new world of entertainment void of any father necessity? One easy answer is simply to join them. One day my 14-year-old son was playing FIFA football. When I asked whether I could play against him, he greeted me with a joyful smile as if to say, “You are welcome to come into my world.” I sensed excitement from my son just in his knowing that I had made an attempt to enter his realm and have a taste of what he finds captivating. Needless to say, I got thrashed, which gave him great pleasure. But for 15 minutes, we were playing together and talking, which was a prized opportunity.

Getting into the world of our teenagers means understanding what things they enjoy doing. Your attempts to understand create a sense of appreciation and gratefulness. Though their peers and other interests may override the influence they received from us when younger, keeping a measured pace with them and not dropping back too far is the key. While the type of play may now be different, building a strong relationship with your teenager involves nothing more than being there.

Values transmission

Christ’s willingness to make time for children, despite His busy schedule of teaching and reaching out to the sick and outcast, is a perfect example for us fathers. He not only reinforced the importance of children in the spectrum of God’s kingdom but also set a valuable lesson of what ought to be just as much a priority for fathers today, despite the pressures of time and demands of life.

Staying connected with your teenager will open new doors of fun activities that could range from going out for fast-food meals together, attending a sporting event, or, dare I say, riding the biggest roller coasters. They are the imprints of fun activities that will remain with your growing child and shape how your teenager will transfer those practices—when it’s their turn.

  1. Ella Pickover, “Playful Dads ‘Have Babies Who Grow to Be Brainier,’ ” Belfast Telegraph, May 10, 2017,belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/playful-dads-have-babies-who-grow-to-be-brainier-35698415.html.
  2. Pickover, “Playful Dads.”
  3. Paul Roberts and Bill Moseley, “Father’s Time: Understanding the Challenges of Fatherhood,” Psychology Today, May 1, 1996, psychologytoday.com/gb/articles/199605/fathers-time.
  4. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  5. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  6. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  7. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  8. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  9. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  10. Roberts and Moseley, “Father’s Time.”
  11. Nedune, “Seven Reasons Why It’s Essential Children Spend Time With Their Fathers,” Nairaland Forum, January 14, 2016, nairaland.com/2864985/seven-reasons-why-essential-children.
  12. Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox, The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006), 12,childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/fatherhood.pdf.
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Richard Daly, DMin, is communications and media director for the British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Watford, Hertfordshire, England.

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