Every night as my boys lie in their beds after we read and pray together, we give each one a hug and a kiss (and sometimes a few tickles) before turning out the lights. Recently, our two-year-old started repeating the same line each night when we stop by his bed— “Daddy, I love you to Betelgeuse and back.” I’m sure he has no concept of how far away that star is, but in his little mind, that’s how he knows to express the extent of his love for his daddy.
Many dads work extra hours to pay for special toys and experiences for their kids, they want to get their children the best education or vacation they can afford, and they would be willing at any moment to lay down their lives if their kids were in danger. However, many dads still struggle to know how best to express the extent of their love for their children.
While there are many ways to express love to others, here are four ways that no dad should neglect.
The competition for your attention is intense—work emails, professional sports, breaking news, yard work, and house projects. If your children sense that they are competing for your attention, they may give up and go back to their toys, books, friends, video games, or social media.
It has been said that quality time with your kids is more important than the quantity of time you spend; this resonates with many men who have a very busy life. The only problem with that adage is that quality time often only comes as you spend quantity time. In other words, it’s difficult to schedule in quality time with your kids.
No one expects to build muscle by having one good workout every month, so don’t expect to have a strong relationship with your child if you take them on a special trip once in a while but never give them regular attention throughout the week.
Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s most important theologians, is said to have spent thirteen hours each day in prayer and study. And yet, every day he made a point to spend some amount of focused time with his wife and with one of his eleven children.
Loving your children by giving them your attention requires both your ears and your eyes. Stop to ask your child about their LEGO creation and pause to listen as they share a story about their day. Give them expectations for when you will be able to spend time with them and then follow through. When you receive an urgent text for work while at home with your family, explain why and how long you think you will be on your phone just as you would if you were spending time with another adult.
If you make a habit of showing love to your children by giving them your attention when they are young, they will likely be more willing to share with you as they grow older. Teens aren’t always ready to “open up” when it’s convenient for you. They need to know that you are really listening to them before they share their hearts.
When was the last time you hugged your kids? As men, we sometimes lack the gentleness and tenderness that a mother usually provides. Fathers can often be viewed as the tough disciplinarians in the home. I want my five boys to be strong and tough, but that doesn’t mean I should treat them like a broncobuster. A godly man uses touch as a way to show love.
If you balk at showing physical affection,1 consider Jesus’ example. During His ministry on earth, He could have easily just healed people with His words, but he often chose to touch them. When approached by a leper (a condition which led to isolation and rejection) in Mark 1, Jesus was “moved with pity” and “stretched out his hand and touched him.” In Mark 7, a man was brought to Jesus who was deaf and had a speech impediment. After taking him aside from the crowd, he “put his fingers into [the man’s] ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.”
The response of the father whose son returns home after living a prodigal lifestyle might be uncomfortable for some dads. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
Children need fatherly physical affection.2 Especially when your children are young, make a point to hug and hold your kids every day. Wrestle with your boys on the living room floor and comb your daughter’s hair (as a father of five boys, I have no idea what little girls like). Many guys like their personal space. Resist the urge to maintain that bubble by pushing your kids away.
As your children grow older, they will go through stages of development that may cause them to feel more self-conscious and insecure about their bodies. If you have daughters, you may feel awkward when you realize that your little girl is starting to look more like a woman. While it’s important to respect her and show sensitivity, don’t pull back from offering hugs and appropriate physical affection; otherwise, you may unintentionally plant seeds of insecurity in her heart.
While physical affection is essential as a dad, it is only one way to show love. Your kids also need verbal affirmation.
A few weeks ago, our 14-month-old took his first few steps by himself and his little fan base went wild. When our kids are young, we celebrate the little accomplishments like using the potty or riding a bike without help. As they grow older, however, our expectations also grow and affirmation can become more infrequent. It’s not wrong to raise our expectations, but it’s a problem if it means verbal affirmation disappears.
First of all, affirmation should not be rooted only in performance, but also in position. Our children need regular reminders that we love them because of who they are and not just what they have done.
The apostle John says that one of the ways God the Father shows love to us is by calling us His children (1 John 3:1). When you stop to remind your son or daughter that they are yours, there is a special security and comfort in those words. Stop to tell them you love them when you are sitting at the dinner table or before you leave for work. Affirm your love for them before and after discipline or when they accidentally break something—your words of love are so important when they feel shame, sadness, or pain.
Secondly, affirm your kids for their character more than their accomplishments or physical attributes.3 In other words, commend your son for his diligence in his homework instead of just telling him that he is great at math. Encourage your daughter when she shows contentment instead of merely commenting on her cute outfit. If you focus on physical attributes or performance, your children may feel like they can’t always measure up or may develop jealousy toward their siblings, but when you affirm their character, you direct the attention back to God’s work in your child’s life.
Finally, try to occasionally affirm your kids in public. At Jesus’ public baptism by John the Baptist and on the mountain after His transfiguration, God the father spoke these words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Without overly bragging on your kids or embarrassing them, it is appropriate and important to show others that you are proud of your kids.
Your children are more likely to measure your love by the gifts and fun things you do for them and yet, one of the most important ways you can love your child is by giving proper correction and instruction.
The Lord demonstrates His love for his children through discipline and chastisement (Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19) so we should carefully do the same.4 If we fail to carry out Biblical correction when our children have broken God’s law, we diminish the gravity of their sin and are actually showing that we do not love our children (Pro. 13:24).
Discipline is more than corrective. The word for discipline has the idea of training or teaching someone. Paul encouraged fathers to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4) There are periods of parenting when it seems like correction is all you do.If we’re honest, this is usually because we are responding to our child’s bad behavior instead of proactively training them and showing them what is right.
Your child may not express their appreciation for your admonition, but if done with wisdom and care, it is an important way to show them love.
As earthly fathers, the way we treat our children will inevitably influence the way they view their heavenly Father. That reality is terrifying and humbling. However, at the end of the day, we must remember that God loves our children more than we do and He does it so much better than us.
If we want to be fathers that love our children well, we must commit ourselves to spending time with our heavenly father. We cannot manufacture love, but we reflect it to our kids as we walk in step with God’s Spirit. (Gal. 5:16-26, Rom. 5:5, John 15:9)
Some men don’t show affection because their father didn’t, or because their father was abusive. Don’t allow the sin or shortcoming of your parents impact the generations to come. Ask for God’s help to heal you from the hurts of your past and give you grace to show the love that you never had. ↩
If you are a stepdad, foster parent, or adoptive dad, you may have to be more cautious about regular demonstrations of physical affection. Additionally, if your child has suffered abuse or neglect, you will need to show extra care and sensitivity. ↩
It’s not wrong to praise your child when they do well but instead of building up their confidence to the point of pride, acknowledge God as the giver of strength, skill, intelligence, or whatever is behind the accomplishment. ↩
The idea of Biblical discipline and chastisement has been distorted for many people because their parents used it as an excuse for showing frustration and even abusive behavior. Biblical, loving correction is always self-controlled and restorative, never reactive or angry. Children should fear the rod but never doubt their parent’s love during correction. ↩