Recently, at the park with my wife and son, I witnessed one of the saddest sights I’ve seen in a long time. A little boy, about five or six, was there with his dad. Normally, this would be a wonderful thing, but the tragedy was, they weren’t spending time with each other. The dad was engrossed in his phone — ignoring his child.
No matter what he tried, this little boy could not get his father’s attention. He jumped up and down yelling, “Dad! Dad! Look at me!” He climbed up the jungle gym, went down the slide, raced in circles, all the while hoping that he might win the affectionate glance, the loving interaction, of his father. But the dad wouldn’t even look up from his phone. He would respond with a distracted grunt, if that.
Finally, depressed and dejected, the little boy sat in a swing by himself. He didn’t swing, he just sat there. His joy and enthusiasm had been extinguished by the inattention of his father, whose attention he very obviously craved. No doubt, his childish heart was grieved and wounded by his relative unimportance compared to a cell phone.
This particular father may have had his reasons for being preoccupied, but I have a hard time fathoming anything in the digital world of apps and emails that would have been more important or more interesting than his precious child—a child who looked up to him and loved him. He simply wanted to play with his dad.
To be a father, especially a father who enjoys fatherhood, in the current cultural milieu is to be a rebel. Men will pursue almost anything with more enthusiasm than they will their children: careers, sports, television, online interaction, you name it.
And yet, I cannot fathom anything more satisfying than being a father—not as a secondary calling, but as a primary calling. It should not be an addition to your life. Fatherhood should be your life. There is nothing more worthwhile than investing your time and energy into a living soul—a human person with infinite worth.
I look at my little boy, Peter, who just turned one, and I see glimpses of his mother and me. And yet he is unquestionably unique, full of a personality all his own. Watching him play provides endless entertainment, for it means watching a person consumed with the happiness of sensation and the thrill of discovery.
This is not to mention the obvious excitement on his face when I come home from work, something I look forward to a great deal. His legs kick, his face lights up with a toothy grin, and his arms reach out for an embrace. How could anything be more wonderful than this? It is intoxicatingly happy.
Statistics have made it abundantly clear that there is no substitute for a father’s presence in the home. But most of us do not need statistics. We know through experience, for we have had either a loving and attentive father, or an absent or distant father. Of course, no father is perfect, and there are many who fall somewhere in between these two extremes. But the predominant patterns are there, and they leave their mark.
To men with children, I challenge you – no, I beg you – spend time with them. Learn their likes and dislikes, their passions, and their loves. Invest yourself in them and cultivate their unique gifts. Make a commitment in your heart never to be the dad who is more interested in his phone – a worthless piece of inanimate junk that will be replaced in a few months or years – than his own child. Never rebuff your children with selfishness or distraction when they reach out for relationship.
Never forget that a child is a delicate and fragile person that can be hurt far more easily than it can be healed. This soul, full of innocence and love, looks to you with an open heart. Know well that you can crush this heart with a glance of irritation, a harsh word, or distraction with something you think is more important.
And believe me, your children will take note of what you find more important than they. They may beg for you to play, only to be ignored in favor of a football game on television. When you spend more time advancing your career than enjoying their company, they will remember.
This sadness will take deep root and very well might bear the ugly fruit of rebellion and resentment in later years. The bitterness of an uninterested father can even leave lifelong scars. That is by no means to say that every wound an adult bears is inflicted by a father. Far from it. But the influence of a father is far deeper than many realize.
Of course, giving a child your full attention, especially more than one, can be taxing. In a very real sense, it is a sacrifice and it will cost you. It may leave you exhausted, but it will never leave you unhappy. No material gift can replace the love of a father given with a generous heart, and you will be repaid with rewards so great that it will make your sacrifices seem insignificant.
Above all, a loving and fatherly presence is the greatest testament to the unchanging love of the Father who’s image we all bear: the unwearied Father who runs to us with kisses of great joy, the moment we, though with faltering steps, turn toward him.
This post originally appeared at Truth and Charity Forum.