Becoming a father

No one has the final word on parenting, and there is no such thing as the 'right' way to raise a child. There are as many ways of parenting as there are people in the world; every parent-child relationship is unique.

However, there are some straightforward principles of fatherhood. Keeping them in mind will not ensure you will be a perfect father - there is no such thing - but they should hold you in good stead as you and your child carve out your shared path through the years.  

For more information on the first stage of fatherhood, see our ' Dad and the Newborn' page.

What you do matters to your child

You will have a deep and lasting influence on your child whatever you do. Remember that children are naturally very aware of what their parents say and do.

Your child will attach a lot of importance to your words and actions - and to your actions more than your words. No well-meaning lecture will impact your child as the way you behave towards others, how you talk about others, deal with your emotions, and what you spend your time, money and energy on.

Children need boundaries and consistency

Your child is new to this bewildering world, and is trying very hard to make sense of it. Your best move as a father is to set boundaries that you will stick to.

This does not mean you must be harsh and unforgiving - disciplinarian parenting is not a good way of raising emotionally healthy children. Setting sensible guidelines for behaviour means that your child knows how they are and are not expected to behave, and what to expect of you. This will help your child learn their roles and responsibilities within the family, reduce their levels of tension and anxiety, and prepare them for later life.  

Remember that whatever other roles you may wish to fulfil at different times throughout your child's upbringing - educator, friend, mentor, and confidante - to your child, you are, and should be, first and foremost their father.

Children need to know they are loved and respected

Your relationship with your child will evolve over time, but it is important they know that you will always be there for them and that you love them.

Your love is the bedrock of your child's confidence when facing the world and growing up in it. There are many ways of showing a child that they are loved; the simplest ones are telling them they are loved and by showing your affection. However, this can be difficult for some fathers if they were not shown the same affection when they were growing up, or they may feel they are less 'manly' if they hug or kiss their child. Find your ways to express your affection.

Be there: listen, ask, respond, engage

Time is a precious commodity in today's society. Spending time with your children and doing things that interest them shows them they are important to you.

Children do not always say if something is wrong, so pay attention to their body language and emotions. Newborn babies are usually noisily communicative about their every need, but an eight year-old may be keeping serious issues to themselves.

Be alert to any changes in your child's behaviour, and encourage them to talk to you. As a rule, general questions ("How are things at school?") will yield general replies ("Okay"), while specific questions ("Who do you play with at break time?") may encourage more valuable responses.

By the same token, your child needs to know they can command your attention. Every parent has had to suffer in silence through excruciatingly long and completely pointless stories told by their three year-old; this is one of the many ways in which you signal to your child that they are being listened to.

Conversely, do not shy away from steering your shared activities towards the things you like to do. Children - especially at younger ages - will often be happy joining dad in doing dad things. This is your chance to turn your child on to your favourite activities, which can be a lot of fun - at least until they become better at it than you.

Tip: praise effort, not ability

Research shows that focusing your praise on your child's efforts at a task leads to better outcomes than praising them on their qualities [1] [2] [3] . 'Process praise' ("You worked really hard!", "You're doing very well", "I like it that you kept at it") sends your child the message that persisting at tasks and finding ways to succeed are worthwhile, and that they can change and improve. Conversely, 'Person praise' ("You're so clever!", "You're so good at this!") is more likely to lead a child to worry about their abilities, blame themselves for failure, believe that abilities are fixed and cannot be changed, and compare themselves excessively to others.

1. Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., et al. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development 84: 1526–1541.

2. Kamins, M.L. & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 35: 835–847.

3. Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 33–52.

Respect your partner

Children do better when their parents are on the same page about how they raise their children, particularly when it comes to setting limits, discipline and family roles. This applies whether the parents are together or separated.

1. Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., et al. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development 84: 1526–1541.

2. Kamins, M.L. & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 35: 835–847.

3. Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 33–52.

Don't be terrible

Many parents feel they are struggling to live up to their own standards. That is a natural - perhaps even inevitable - consequence of life and parenthood. Parenting will bring you to your knees. Every parent experiences times of deep anguish and frustration and times of unspeakable joy - sometimes within minutes of each other.

There are excellent fathers, good fathers, and bad fathers; sometimes all of these are the same person at different times. Until that point in the imaginary future when you become a perfect person, you can 'fake it til you make it' - do your best. With children, you do get points for trying. The terrible father is the one who is not trying: a father who does not care, does not respond, or may be violent or abusive.

Fatherhood is an intense and difficult experience, and requires a lot of effort and learning. You will make many mistakes on the way. Be honest to your child about your faults. When you make a mistake, own up to it so your child can see adults are always learning too and that we all make mistakes. Do not forget to be easy on yourself: your child is not the only one who is learning, growing and developing.

1. Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., et al. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development 84: 1526–1541.

2. Kamins, M.L. & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 35: 835–847.

3. Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 33–52.

Ask for help

Men are especially prone to keeping their problems to themselves, even when they genuinely could use some help. Don't be that guy. There are many places you can turn to: other fathers, healthcare professionals and support services (see below) can offer you help and advice.

1. Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., et al. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development 84: 1526–1541.

2. Kamins, M.L. & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 35: 835–847.

3. Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 33–52.

Support services

MensLine Australia. Website: https://www.mensline.org.au/. Helpline: 1300 78 99 78.

1. Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., et al. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development 84: 1526–1541.

2. Kamins, M.L. & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 35: 835–847.

3. Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 33–52.