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6 Easy Steps to Be the Dad Your Kid Will Appreciate in 20 Years

When I was growing up, I thought my dad was a freak. He wore strange clothes, said weird things, and listened to horrible music. In fact, he used to sit on the living room floor wearing giant headphones listening to his vinyls.

Every now and then he’d unplug the headphones and let his music fill the house (I didn’t like these moments): Elton John, Simon & Garfunkle, and Cat Stevens.

I couldn’t stand this music…because it was his music. I boycotted any songs, all artists that my father enjoyed because I wanted to disassociate myself with his out-of-date, old hat, lyricists.

Twenty years later, when I was all about getting those eleven CDs for a penny (remember those promos?), I’d choose my Sugar Ray and Lenny Kravitz, but I’d find myself always throwing in some kind of out-of-date, old hat Elton John or Cat Stevens-like artists. Why? Because although my dad really was a freak, he did have good taste in music.

Sometimes it takes time for kids to appreciate their fathers and what they do. I guess it’s a form of delayed gratification.

If you want to be the dad that your adult children will appreciate, here are six easy ways to get ‘er done.

1. Avoid Courtesy Smiles

If your kid just ain’t cutting it, don’t pretend he is. My daughter loves basketball, but she’s not great yet (saying she’s good might even be a stretch, but I love the girl). One day she asked, “Papa, do you think I’ll ever play in the WNBA?”

Sure, I could have smiled and fibbed, “Of course, you’ll definitely play pro basketball,” but it’s crucial we keep our children grounded…without breaking their hearts. So, I replied, “If you want to be in the WNBA, you’ll have to practice a lot more.”

Keeping it real, while offering a way to keep the door open to their dream is ideal. And, kids know when we’re buttering them up, anyway. Young people perform better when adults express sincere expectations for them.

2. Beat ‘Em At Checkers

Too many dads let their kids beat them at checkers, Chutes and Ladders, or tennis. They feel it would break their little one’s heart if she lost to Dear Old Dad. Wrong! She will be so thankful one day that you didn’t.

Because I was a fast runner in school, I would challenge my mom to races, and she never let me win. She’d always beat me by a stride or two. It didn’t damage my psyche. On the contrary, it gave me something to shoot for. As I got swifter, Mom would run faster, still barely beating me.

I still remember the day. I was twelve years old, and I beat my mom in a foot race. Ecstatic, I asked her, “Did you let me win?”

“No, you won fair and square.” That triumph meant something to me. By my mom not letting me win, I learned resilience. I learned how to lose, and I learned to appreciate a true victory.

3. Make “Can’t” a 4-Letter Word (oops, already is)

Don’t let your kid use the word “can’t” at home. Give him alternatives:

            “I’m having trouble with…”

            “I’m not sure how to…”

            “Can you help me with…”

            “How do I…”

            “I’m trying to…”

When a dad lets his son tell him that he can’t, he’s allowing him to throw in the towel. Have him use one of the alternatives above. When he does, he learns that it’s okay to ask for help. He learns perseverance, even when something’s difficult. And, he learns that he is capable.

4. Be A Father Before You’re A Friend

Your daughter would love to be all buddy-buddy with you, but that’s not what she needs. Kids tell us they want their freedom, but they really need boundaries. You want her to like you, but more importantly, you need to set expectations and when they are not maintained, follow through with your consequences.

She may not appreciate it today, but she’ll feel safe knowing her limits and expectations. She may not always like you, but as long as you’re fair and consistent, she’ll always love you and will bring that with her when she becomes a parent of her own.

5. Mandatory Philanthropy

Starting very early on, when you give your child an allowance or he gets a monetary birthday gift from Aunt Gertrude, require him to donate a portion (maybe 10%) to an organization that’s close to his heart (Loves animals? Try an animal shelter. Cousin’s a soldier? Maybe to a veteran’s organization. Knows someone with cancer? How about cancer research?)

When I was a youngster, my family struggled financially. I was under the impression that we couldn’t afford to help others. As a result, as I became financially independent as an adult, I still had that “money-hoarding” mentality and continue to have to force myself to donate.

If philanthropy becomes a part of your child’s life early on, he’ll never have to force himself to give as an adult. Also, when young people give back, they feel a part of something bigger than themselves. That allows them to gain confidence, which leads to academic improvement in school.

6. Never Tell Your Kid She Is Smart

Conventional wisdom tells us otherwise. Your kid kicks it out of the park on a math test or writes an award-winning essay. She rocks, right? Why not let her know it? Because research tells us that when kids are told they are smart, they don’t want to lose that title. So, instead of taking on the next challenge as we might think, many won’t risk appearing less “smart” and won’t push on.

What do you do instead? Praise your child’s efforts and improvements. In a study conducted by Carol Dweck, she found that kids were more likely to take on a harder challenge when they were praised for their effort, than for their achievement. Why? Because even if they didn’t achieve, but worked hard, they could still be praised for their effort. So, tell her you are impressed by how she’s grown as a writer or that all that studying for algebra really paid off.

Your little one may not appreciate all you do today as a dad, but remember, the short time she is under your wing is your time to instill the patterns, habits, and cycles that will help her be a happy and successful adult. It may be tough today, but she’ll appreciate it all in twenty years (sooner if you’re lucky). And, who knows, when you come over to visit her home for a family, holiday dinner, she may be playing your MC Hammer and Milli Vanilli.


Leon Scott Baxter's picture
America’s Relationship Guru

Leon Scott Baxter, “America’s Relationship Guru,” is the author of Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting and the founder of He’s the father of two girls, 12 and 16, and has taught elementary school for eighteen years.