One Father’s Day weekend, all the kids in Sunday school were asked to share their favorite memory of being with their dad. All five sons of the pastor—in separate classes so none knew what his brothers had said—shared the same thing: going to the doughnut shop with their dad before church. There had been many fun family vacations that were carefully planned, often elaborate, and sometimes expensive, but it was the doughnut shop with Dad they all loved and remembered best. Spending time with Dad is precious to kids.
Sometimes we joke about how dads parent their children—it’s frequently different than how moms do it—but what they do serves definite purposes in a child’s life. Some of the ways men “father” their children tend to be universal and ageless; for instance, the way dads have of balancing a child over their head on the palm of their hand and gently rotating them back and forth; the way they twirl, swing, dangle and toss a child up into the air and catch them. An older man treasures a very dear childhood memory of his dad and uncles tossing him back and forth across the living room while his mom protested that he was going to hit the chandelier. (He didn’t.) It turns out that these mom-worrying forms of play are important in developing a child’s sense of balance!
There is also a touch of benign neglect that dads bring to the parenting equation. It’s a gently humorous truth that you can usually tell when Dad has dressed the kids. Their hair is rumpled, their clothes don’t match, and he is oblivious. Dads can also be indulgently indifferent about food. When Mom is away, pizza rules the day! In general, dads don’t worry as much about things as moms do, and they are more likely to encourage their children to take risks and meet challenges—which is an important part of a child’s character growth.
Men are the less verbal of the parenting pair, but that is often a plus—not a problem. Kids receive character-building communication from their dads without words getting in the way. One son remembers suffering a withering loss to a rival team, and his dad said, “We’ll work on it.” Then he tossed him a basketball and they shot a few hoops together. His son processed his dad’s reaction as being allowed to absorb the loss without a mushy discussion or a chirpy pep talk. Dads say a great deal without saying much at all. It’s one of their gifts.
A dad’s respect for his daughter and his admiration of her strengths and gifts builds a natural wall of belief and confidence against anyone who would think of or treat her otherwise.
Kids don’t need the greatest dad in the world; they just need a dad who is in their world. And if they don’t have a dad in their world? “Fathering” is something any man can do. Simply spending time with a young person activates all the dynamics of fathering. A dad doesn’t have to be a sage or a psychologist. He doesn’t have to be a skilled mentor or motivator. All he really has to be—is there. Men do great “Dad things” without even being aware of it. If you would like to tap into your own “Dad power” and make a difference in the life of a child, one simple and deeply rewarding way is to volunteer at Lake Pend Oreille High School, an alternative school in Sandpoint. There, children whose lives have been more challenging than most have the opportunity to complete their academic education and experience a supportive, caring environment.
The teachers and volunteers become pseudo family members to the students. One graduate asked a teacher-friend to walk her down the aisle when she married. Another considered a teacher-friend a grandfather figure in their life. “That is the beauty of this school,” says teacher Randy Wilhelm. “We’re one big family.” Randy first came to the campus as a guest speaker, changed careers, and is now in his 21st year there.
The modest downtown campus often becomes home to the students and many stop by and check in from time to time after they graduate. As one graduate put it, “I miss this place so much!” They share their successes and sometimes ask for advice. They list the teachers as job references. They get help in building community connections and guidance in going in the right direction. “It’s nice to keep in touch and see them land on their feet and move forward,” Randy says, “to see them go on to college, get married, have families.”
Because some of the students have been hurt and let down, they may initially think a volunteer is just going to leave them like everyone else in their life has done. But when connection begins, there is nothing else like it.
“You never know when you’re making that big impact,” Randy says. “Once volunteers get involved, they tend to stay just because they enjoy the students. You may not know the backstory of the battle a student is fighting, but you can help them win it.”
For more information, call Lake Pend Oreille Alternative High School at 208.263.6121. (Although this article is about dads in commemoration of Father’s Day, women volunteers are needed just as much!)