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.) 

During my daughter’s senior year in high school, she was the point guard for the girls’ basketball team. I was attending one of the games in which her team was in the final moments of losing the game by a significant margin. My daughter was defending against one of the visiting team’s players when she barely bumped into the girl and the referee called a foul on my daughter.

As an over-excited spectator and a deeply invested father in his daughter’s playing, I felt with the game almost over and the bump so slight that the call was unnecessary. My reaction was to shout at the ref in a loud voice that boomed through the gym, “You jerk, the game is almost over!” My daughter’s glance at me, as others stared at me in disbelief or disgust, revealed all she had to say about my embarrassing explosion, “Dad, stop — I can handle this!”

One of the most difficult parts of being a father is watching your child fail at something. From when our baby tries to hold something and it tumbles to the floor, to when the college admission rejection letter comes in the mail, it is the natural tendency for a father to want to prevent the child from experiencing disappointment. But surviving disappointment is an important part of learning that life is a blend of getting what we want and accepting what we get, and learning from both. In other words, our children must often fail to find their way to realistic and satisfying success.

Of course, there is a balance between intervening and standing aside that is relative to a child’s age and the situation.

When a crawler approaches the top of an unblocked set of stairs, we obviously do not think, “Let him tumble down the steps once and he’ll not to do that again!” We would remove the child quickly from such a hazardous situation.

At the same time, as a child is learning to crawl and reaches for a toy, to always step in and hand the child the object interferes with the developmentally age-appropriate growth experience of struggling to successfully reach for something.

As our children get older, the line between intervening or not becomes even more obscure and the chance of our missteps grows more intense.

There was a commercial some time ago in which a father was standing beside a car, looking in at his daughter, who was about to drive away on her own. As he discussed the dangers of the road to her and made suggestions regarding how to be a safe driver, she appeared as a little girl behind the wheel. As the commercial progressed and the scene switched from the father’s perspective to the daughter’s, revealing she was a young woman ready to drive away, she said, “Don’t worry, Dad — I’ll be fine!”

I have experienced that father’s anxiety on many occasions, being a father of four. Each time I wanted to say, “Move over — I’m driving,” I realized it was their responsibility to drive safely. And, as the accidents happened, and thankfully none resulted in anything more than car damage, they learned, as I did at their age, to drive carefully.

It is often difficult to determine the appropriate level of parental control. What is best for the child is sometimes extremely uncomfortable for the parent, but it is the child’s best interest that must guide our level of involvement. Our children deserve the opportunity to succeed or fail at age-appropriate times. Often, the best we can do is help teach them that failure can lead to success. We need to consider when to lend a shoulder or lend a hand.

I would say, however, that when we find that life’s circumstances have overshadowed our child’s ability to overcome obstacles or meet unsurmountable challenges, no matter what the age, no matter what the issue, we should help. Knowing how and when to offer our help is one of the tough challenges we face in striving to be great dads.

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.