How To Be A Good Military Father

father and daughter on her graduation day
(Jamie Philbrook/DVIDS)

What makes a good military father? Search online and you will find all these airy notions for fatherhood: Be open-minded. Accept that children aren’t exactly like you. Know that it ends too quickly.

Those are nice ideas. But I think when you are a sailor, soldier, Marine, Coastie or airman, you have to be a helluva lot more boots on the ground if you are a military father. Because of the nature of the job, military fathers have less time with their kids.

So how do good military guys become good military fathers? I thought I would start a list:

1. Love their mother.

“The most important thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother,” wrote Rev. Theodore Hesburg, president of Notre Dame for 35 years. Everyone from Dear Abby to John Wooden to your parish priest has quoted him.

Because this is the biggie. This is the one to remember. Love the mother like love is a verb.

And, if you are a divorced military father and you can’t love your kids’ mother any more, treat her with respect. That goes a long way, too.

2. Provide and protect.

When I work with young military dads, I often ask them what they think the dad’s role ought to be. Their answer? Provide and protect.

As a sociologist, this makes me squirm—stereotypical gender roles! Oh no!

But I think there is value in paying attention to what these men expect from themselves and deepening those ideas over time.

3. Attack the learning curve.

If babies came equipped with necks strong enough to hold up their floppy heads, fatherhood might be a lot easier. Because nothing seems to make the men in my family feel stupider than being handed Baby Floppy Head.

And my guys hate to feel stupid. That’s why they have this initial habit of looking at the mom for help.

Here is the secret, guys: the mom is only better at this because she has done it more (and I think there are some hormones involved there at first, too). So I say you treat childcare like a constantly changing obstacle course. You attack the learning curve and learn how to get through.

One Marine wife told me that her husband comes home from deployment and always asks, “OK, what are the new rules?” It signals that he understands the family has changed and that he is in it to win it. Smart.

4. Do for your children.

There are plenty of things on the “Be” list for a father: Be patient. Be kind. Be relaxed. Be positive. Be present.

But for military fathers, I think the “Do” list can get you a lot farther. Do things with your child and for your child. Buckle them into the car seat. Pour their cereal. Tie their shoes. Hand them a juice box. Zip their jackets. Do their homework with them. Drive them to practice. Smell their breath.

It may be tempting to let the mom do for the kids because she is there all the time (unless she, too, is a military member). But I think dads cheat themselves out of a deeper relationship with their kids when this happens.

Doing for a child helps us get to know them in a very detailed way and it helps them get to know us. Kids learn that there is dad’s way of doing things and mom’s way. Both are good ways.

5. Come home praising

In my research on long married military couples, I found that one thing long married military dads have in common is a deep admiration system for the way their wives construct the family and keep in going in their absence.

These guys say things like, “She does it all.” And, “I couldn’t do what I do without her.” And, “If anything happens, I know the family is going to be all right.”

These men don’t only praise their wives outside the family, they make sure that their wives know they are appreciated and admired. My rule is: Praise anything you want to see again.

6. Make a place for yourself.

Most dads have no trouble taking on the outside chores: lawn mowing, car washing, grilling, garbage detail. But those long married military dads had something else in common -- they had chores they own inside the house, too. These weren't chores the dads were doing that the moms tasked them to do. These men owned some indoor daily household responsibilities like laundry or kitchen clean up or bathtime or reading time. Some guys just made the coffee. But if they owned the chore, their wives loved 'em for it.

In my research, women told me that when their husbands deployed, these chores left undone underlined the absence of the dad in a good way. Then when the dad came home, starting in with that one particular chore started the family back on the road to normal.

7. Work on yourself.

Come home from deployment changed? Got a problem related to your service? That’s OK. Bad things can happen to good people. But go get it taken care of, will you? Please?

Because I am begging you. If there is one thing I have learned at this job, it is that a troubled military father who does not get help can scar his children for life. You don’t want that for your kids. They approve new treatments for PTSD all the time. Don't stop looking for something that will help. This is what science is for.

8. Keep trying.

Dads, you should know that you are the only person on earth who can give your kids a good father. Know that it is never too late for you to decide to be a better father. Kids grow older. Cultures shift. People change their minds about what is important.

I often think my own father is better at relating to his children as adults. He likes us more now. We are quieter.

The thing is, when someone is talking about “good fathers” the image of my own military dad pops into my head. I'm lucky that way. The man loves my mother, has always loved her, will always love her -- and he tells you about it. He was always a protector and provider. He grinds fresh coffee for my mom every night and taught me to expect all men to be that good.

Best of all, he and my mom are coming to "do" for me this week. The man is still tackling the learning curve of fatherhood-- and teaches me more about what it means to be a good father every year.

Happy Father's Day to all of our military fathers out there -- we couldn't do what we do without you.

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