Commentary: Children don’t need a perfect dad, they just need you

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Regardless of the “how to” books available to read, parenting is hard and regularly leaves you questioning yourself.

I laugh when thinking about the wide variety of fatherhood movies in every genre — “Mr. Mom,” “Finding Nemo,” “Big Daddy,” “Hotel Transylvania” and even “The Godfather.” There are so many differing and exaggerated parenting styles that show there is no perfect formula to parenting.

Recently, there have been a lot of first-time fathers in my circle of friends. I’ve had numerous discussions about fatherhood and it made me reflect on my own parenting. What advice would I give a new dad?

It starts with just being present.

I remember first becoming a father almost 10 years ago. It was the happiest and scariest day of my life. I had all these plans — no fast food, no video games, exercise every day, limited television, etc.

Who was I kidding?

Parenting can’t be scripted. It is unpredictable, and just when you think you have it, you realize you don’t.

Each Father’s Day, which this year fell on Sunday, June 20, in case you forgot, we thank fathers, stepfathers, father figures and positive male role models for being present in our lives. Nothing brings a smile to my face more than watching dads do the “robot” at a father-daughter dance or prove they have still “got it” at the Rollerdrome. To all you dads keeping it real, I salute you.

Some parenting is innate, but a lot of it is learned. We learned from watching our fathers and their lessons, because they were present in our childhood. For the lucky among us, we are still learning from them in adulthood. That is why I wanted to take this opportunity to share some sobering statistics evidencing just how important it is for fathers to be in the lives of their children.

Although the numbers vary, it is estimated that over 20 percent of children live in homes without fathers. That number grows substantially in minority, low income and overburdened communities. Fatherlessness is a fast-growing problem in the United States and research shows that a father-absent childhood can significantly affect a child’s perception of life, as well as their life choices.

Children raised in a father-absent home are at a four-times greater risk of living in poverty. They are twice as likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to suffer from obesity. They are seven times more likely to become pregnant as a teen and they are more likely to commit suicide, abuse alcohol and drugs, go to prison, commit a crime and have behavior problems.

The sad statistics go on and on. This is not an indictment of single-parent, women-led households. I am grateful to my mother, my wife and all the women who positively influenced my life.

However, the trend of fatherless homes and the impacts are alarming. Children need the relationship and love of both parents.

If we are going to address poverty, education, crime, substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness, we must look inward, not outward. Solutions aren’t found with more government programs taking parenting opportunities away.

It begins in the home where values are taught and love is shared by parents.

From the larger societal perspective, I believe we need to do more to empower and strengthen families and give them opportunities to be successful. From an individual perspective, fathers need to stay active in our own children’s lives, volunteer and be examples of positive male role models in the community and reach out to be a resource for new dads.   

Each Father’s Day, I make a pledge to do more with my family. This year, I am doubling down on reading with my children. Reading with your child is a bonding experience and studies show that children who read 15 minutes a day have accelerated gains in school; the greatest gains are seen with reading 30 minutes a day.

I admit that I have been slacking.

For school-aged children, maybe find a book to read together and then watch the movie. Make it a whole event.

I also encourage dads to join me by volunteering in classrooms and mentoring programs. Although COVID-19 shut down our schools and many activities this past year, consider volunteering in the classroom next school year, coach youth sports, volunteer for mentoring programs, get active with faith-based clubs, help the Boys and Girls Club or join WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students). I promise it will have a huge positive impact on you and the children.

Lastly, reach out to a young dad and be a resource.

We’ve all made mistakes, learned from them and laughed about them.

I am by no means an expert at parenting or fathering. However, I believe the best advice I can give this Father’s Day is to be present, be engaged and don’t sweat perfection. Children don’t need a perfect father. They just need you.

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State Rep. Peter Abbarno serves in the 20th district, and is a lawyer and former Centralia City Council member who lives in Centralia.

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