Father and son on the soccer field

Columnist Ken Witmer this week continues his series about fatherhood.

(Disclaimer: In using the term “father,” I am referring to biological fathers, adopted fathers or any father figure.) 

Father’s Day is a day set aside for us to honor our fathers and thank them for the impact they have or have had on our lives. Often, it is also a day, as fathers, we find ourselves reflecting upon our fatherhood and wondering how our children truly see us as fathers. And see us they do!

I like what the actor Jeff Bridges said about his father: “What I learned most from my father wasn’t anything he said; it was just the way he behaved.” His father was the famous actor Lloyd Bridges — truly, “Like father, like son!”

It is important to keep in mind the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” when considering our role as father. Obviously, much of what we say has a powerful impact on our sons and daughters. But our behaviors and actions also covey subtle, yet powerful messages to them about who we are and what we view as acceptable behavior.

Through observing us, our children develop perceptions and attitudes, right or wrong, good or bad, about the world around them and how they should act within it.

Not taking a position regarding the appropriateness of any habit, the research on cigarette smoking offers unquestionable statistical evidence in support of the potential modeling power of a father. Researchers have found, “in homes with a parent who was a persistent heavy smoker, the oldest sibling was influenced to smoke, which increased the odds that young siblings would also smoke by six times.” (HealthDay Report, 2011).

I am sure there have been moments when you have observed your children’s behavior and said to yourself, “they’re acting just like me.” My middle son, Nat, recently shared that he was mowing the lawn with his hand mower when he realized his son Harrison was following him, pushing a little plastic toy mower. No one told Harrison to mow the lawn with his father. He just copied “Daddy’s” behavior.

Most of the time, our children’s modeling of us is less obvious than in the cute case of the double mowers. And, most of the time, neither we nor our children realize just how much our behaviors and actions deeply influence theirs.

As fathers, we have an obligation to think seriously about the nonverbal messaging we are conveying to our children and, without being phony about it, watch ourselves! Knowing our children are watching us encourages us to evaluate our behavior and make meaningful changes, if necessary.

I believe this is what Ryan Gosling was referring to when he said, “When you meet your kids, you realize that they deserve great parents. And then you have your marching orders, and you have to try and become the person they deserve.”

My intention for reminding us this Father’s Day that our children are constantly watching us and subtly emulating our behaviors and attitudes is not to make us feel self-conscious about how we act around our children. Rather, I hope on Father’s Day we can celebrate with our children the goodness in them for which we feel partially responsible. I also hope it is a day in which we rededicate ourselves to the amazing role of “Father!”

Likewise, let us renew our determination to be individuals for whom our children can proudly say about the positive manner in the way they live their lives, “What I learned most from my father wasn’t anything he said; it was just the way he behaved!”

Kenneth D. Witmer Jr., Ph.D., is a former dean of the College of Education & Social Work at West Chester University. A father of four and grandfather of eight, he and his wife recently moved to the Bethany Beach area.