Father's Day is coming up, and it's a good time to think again about the importance of fathers in children’s lives. Numerous studies show that involved fathers have positive effects on their children's development. Children whose fathers take an active role in their lives have better grades and fewer behavioral problems in school, as well as fewer psychological problems in general. One of the best things that we can do as a foster or stepparent, then, is to encourage fathers to be active in our kids’ lives.
Encourage A Close Relationship
If your child’s biological father is present in the home, the logistics may be easy. That was the situation I had with my stepsons. My husband had custody and was a very engaged father, so I didn’t have to do much in the way of encouraging him. The hard part, I found, was just staying out of the way. I tend to try to improve things around me, and it took a while for it to sink in that the best thing I could do was just let them work out their relationships by themselves. Of course, I could offer emotional support and listen to each side of any disagreements. My best role, though, was just to offer encouragement as an interested bystander. They didn’t need my advice or opinions; they just needed my support.
If your kids don’t live with their biological father, then the situation is more complicated, but not necessarily harder. Research shows that children who don’t live with their fathers but still feel close to them have better mental health outcomes than children without that close relationship. Fathers can offer emotional support through frequent phone calls, text messages, and regular visits. Just showing up for important school or community events can have a big impact. In those situations, our role is not only to offer encouragement, but provide infrastructure. Kids may need transportation, reminders, or other help. We can’t force fathers and children to spend time together, but we can remove many obstacles.
Remove Barriers to Active Involvement
Sometimes, removing obstacles will require us to sacrifice. For example, I’ve parented kids under a court order requiring that visits with their biological parents be supervised. By rights, the biological parent should have taken responsibility for finding a supervisor, and some of them did. Others, however, always seemed to have an excuse. For those kids, I had to find a solution or leave them without any visits. The question wasn’t what was fair, but what the kids needed. We have to be willing to work out those logistics or provide tangible support to help kids have whatever positive relationship they can. If your child’s biological father is actively involved, or trying to be, then you have to support that relationship. You may have to dig deep to find the willingness to do that, but we have to find ways to make it happen.
It can be difficult, particularly when the adult relationship is contentious. We may have to work hard to make ourselves support a biological parent, especially if we think they are using the kids as hostages in a power-play. It can be galling to always be the one to change our schedules or make sacrifices for someone else’s relationship. Supporting our kids doesn’t mean that we always let a manipulative biological parent impose on us. Sometimes we have to set strong boundaries, but it is hard to know how often we need to do that. The only rules of thumb I’ve found are that I have to remember that it’s not about me, and that I have to sacrifice more than I want, but less than the other parent wants me to.
I also found as a foster parent that I had to let go of my expectations of what my kids’ biological fathers should be doing. Few of them lived up to my standards (after all, the kids were in foster care), but my opinion wasn’t relevant to their parent-child relationships. The kids didn’t care what I thought; they only cared about the relationship with their parents. I constantly had to remind myself that those dads, no matter what I thought, had a crucial role in their children’s lives. Of course, I had to worry about safety and court orders and agency restrictions, but within those boundaries, I had to find ways to encourage relationships even with people I didn’t like or approve of.
Be or Recruit Mentors to Serve as Involved Father Figures
The most complicated issue is absent fathers. Either they have no interest in staying in touch, or they make promises and don’t show up. Every foster parent and many stepparents have had to help kids through these heartbreaking situations. We have to find the delicate balance of reassuring children that it’s not their fault while not criticizing their parents. We can’t fix the relationship; all we can do is offer emotional support to our kids.
We also may be able to fill in some of the spaces by becoming or finding a mentor for them. A stepfather or foster father can be a positive male role model for a child who doesn’t have a good relationship with his or her biological father. We can provide the love, nurture, and positive influence that they need. Even if they try to ignore us, they will see the example that we set. While we cannot replace their parents, we can come alongside them and become an important part of their lives. It will be our kids’ Plan B, but second choices can be pretty powerful if we give them a chance.
As we look forward to Father’s Day this year, let’s keep in mind that biological fathers have a vital role in our child’s life. It is impossible to overestimate the vital impact that engaged fathers have on children’s development. We need to find ways to support the relationship whenever we can and fill in the spaces when we can’t.