While it might seem obvious what “dad” means – a male parent (from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary), it’s often a lot harder to define the role of dad. If you’re a dad, it might also be challenging to actually describe what you do and what that means for you, your child(ren) and family.

To help clarify, we’re sharing an excerpt from our Involved Fathers booklet that explains, “What’s a dad for?”

Dad could mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so we think the best way to start is by thinking about what children need. After all, the definition is a male parent.

What Kids Need

Children need many things from their parents, but let’s break it down into the main pieces. They need:

  • The necessities of life
  • Human interaction
  • Care and comfort
  • Warmth and love
  • Guidance and protection
  • To be important to someone

All of these relate to the different roles that dads (and mothers) play. *Note we use the term dad and father interchangeably.

The Provider Dad (for the necessities of life)

This used to be a dad’s main role, and it’s still important. If kids don’t get the basics — food, clothing and shelter — some of the other things we’re going to talk about won’t seem to matter much. And although nowadays many mothers as well as fathers provide for their children, it’s still true that kids who don’t have a dad making a financial contribution are more likely to be poor. So working at a job which contributes to the family’s economic well-being is an important part of being a dad.

The Interactive Dad (for human interaction)

A child is a person, of course. And she learns how to be a person through human interaction that begins with parents and starts at birth. Kids learn communication skills, social rules, and values of their culture and/or religion by interacting with their parents and by watching parents interact with others. So, they need to be with us as much as possible. They need us to talk to them, play with them and make them a part of our world.

The Nurturing Dad (for care and comfort)

We hear a lot these days about how important it is to stimulate growing brains, but being smart doesn’t count for much if kids aren’t looked after and if they don’t feel good on the inside. Nurturing means helping someone or something to grow. In fact, it’s been shown that if babies aren’t held, stroked, and touched, they don’t develop normally. When you look after babies — change their diapers, comfort them, feed them and give them baths — in a warm and loving way, you can’t help but give them the kind of nurturing touch they need.

The Affectionate Dad (for warmth and love)

Another part of parenthood is being in a relationship. Because it is your child’s first relationship, it is very important and needs to be filled with love and warmth. Fathers express affection in many ways. Hugs, smiles and kisses are the obvious ones, but this warmth is also expressed in the way you talk to your children, play with them and reassure them when they’re upset.

The Responsible Dad (for guidance and protection)

Young children need lots of guidance. Fathers need to share the responsibility for protecting and teaching them. We protect our children by providing safe homes, supervising them carefully, ensuring they get proper medical care and making sure they are well cared for when we aren’t with them. Parents are also a child’s first and most important teachers. We teach kids what to do and what not to do. We also show them the world and how it works, and help them pursue their interests.

The Committed Dad (for being important to someone)

Along with everything else, kids need to know that they belong and that they are the most important thing in the world to somebody. That’s you. This commitment is something you need to communicate to your children, through your words and also by the way you relate to them when you are with them. It also involves a consciousness that stays with you all the time. You think of your children when you are away from them, you talk about them with your friends. No matter what else you may be doing, on some level you’re always aware that you are a father.

Share and Share Alike?

Fathers can play all of these roles. So can mothers. Exactly who does what for the kids will be a little different in every family. It doesn’t have to be a perfect 50/50 split. But the point is that children can get what they need from both parents. In the past, dads have tended to concentrate on providing, playing and teaching, leaving nurturing mainly to mothers. And we’ve tended to think that women are better at that. Well, there may be an instinct to nurture, but it’s mostly something that you learn through experience. Men can learn this too, and most who try, discover that it’s one of the best parts of being a parent.

The Art of Being a Dad

It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. It’s not really enough to say, “Teach your children” or “Hug them” or “Play with them,” because you can do all these things well or do them in a way that’s not right for your child. How do you know what approach will be best for your individual child? The key is to know your child.

Watch and wait. Watch for how your child reacts and wait for her to show you what she is interested in. One baby may laugh when you make a silly noise, another may startle and burst into tears. One preschooler may want lots of hugs when he’s sad, another may want you close by, but not touching him. Attentive parenting is not an instinct. It’s something you learn, by paying attention to your child. It’s an education which never really ends since children keep changing as they grow.

The role you play as a dad in your family will depend on what your children are like, what you and your partner are like, and the type of work you both do. But it all starts with what your children need. And the more attention you pay to all their needs, the less you’ll be asking, “What’s my role?”

Dads, what do you think is your default dad role? How about the role you want to step into more?  Please let us know in the comments.

To go deeper in your role as dad or improve in any of the areas your children need, download one of our free resources, read more of our blogs, or sign up for our free course Fatherhood Fundamentals.