I’m sitting there on the couch with my toddler in my arms, and we’re waving as Mom heads out the door.
We go to the window and wave (seriously, it’s so cute) as her car pulls away, disappearing around the corner. And then it happens: this annoying, cruel question pops into my head:
OK, so now what do we DO?
Ever been there? Me too, man! Once a week, I stay home with my one-year-old son while my wife goes into the office. It’s a sweet gig for the most part (saves on childcare costs, which is totally worth it).
And I love being a dad. I believe it’s part of who God made me to be. And I’m not a total putz. I’ve mastered the basics of keeping a little human alive. I know how to scramble eggs (meals, check). I know the route to the nearest playground (nature time, check). I know how to flip through a pop-up book without tearing any pages (brain development, check.) And I’ve worked with kids for most of my grown-up life so I do have a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to discipline and redirection.
But just like you, dude, if I’m honest, some days I feel completely out of ideas in the child-rearing department. Plus I feel this pressure to be the Best. Dad. Ever.
Maybe it comes from social media, or maybe it’s just my performance-driven nature. In a way, some of it comes from the Bible. There’s a verse in Malachi that I think about constantly: “God will incline the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (4:6).
I really, really want to be that kind of dad.
But every time I find myself wondering, “What do I even DO with my kid?” it’s not long before what I call “The Spiral” begins.
Here’s how The Spiral works. At first, into my head pops a really innocent, accurate assessment of the fact that I’m not a perfect person. I think, “Oh man, I really should have planned something to do with my son today. Welp, missed that opportunity.”
Before I know it, I’m actively tearing myself down. “You suck at this. Why did you even want to be a dad in the first place? Your shortcomings as a man are going to mess up your kid.” Brutal (and let’s be honest—probably way too harsh and kind of a crazy overreaction. Probably).
Unfortunately, I find myself swirling in The Spiral more than I’d like to admit.
Fortunately, I have some good news! I’m no expert on this fatherhood deal, but in the last year and a half, I have stumbled upon some ideas for dads who have found themselves feeling stuck and uninspired.
Here are some things that have worked for me—that also didn’t cost anything or require tons of planning, by the way.
- Adventures can be simple. Running a basic errand is mind-blowing to little kids. We can make magic happen. We can get cash from the ATM, buy milk with a swipe of a little plastic card, and shoot, we can drive. Give yourself twice as much time, but explain to your kid what you’re doing, and why. If nothing else, it’s stimulating their brain and letting them get comfortable with their father’s voice.
- Do the stuff you already were going to do—just talk about it while you do it. Continuing that thought, your kid is actually wired to get comfort and peace from your literal voice. Think about that. Just by talking—even humming—your kid is getting to know you and feeling loved in your presence. So just let them hear you while you’re doing the mundane stuff. Say out loud what needs to be done: “We need to cook some lunch.” Then just keep your kid with you and talk through the task. “First we’re going to open the fridge. Let’s decide what to cook. Bacon, or extra-thick bacon?”
- Skip the kids’ music. I really, really don’t like kids’ music. Recently, I heard this podcast episode about a dad who figured, “Any song that you played to a two-year-old, a three-year-old, might become their favorite song, and then you would have to listen to it 20 times a day. So I never played (my daughter) anything I wasn’t willing to listen to 20 times a day.” Freakin’ brilliant. Many a morning has passed with me and my boy listening to Led Zeppelin and the Hamilton soundtrack. Beats “Baby Shark” that’s for sure.
- Meet the neighbors. If you’re like me, meeting the guy next door is super intimidating—until I’ve got my kid on my shoulders, and we’re just making the rounds. It’s helped me see my neighbors in a new way.
- Set down the screens. I know, I know, I’m gonna sound like that guy. But there was nothing like my one-year-old prying my phone out of my hands to make me realize I was modeling an addiction to technology that isn’t great for anyone, let alone a toddler. Take cute pics and videos, but for the love, keep the screens away while you’re the only adult in charge of your kid.
- Serve others. There are dads in my community who inspire me. Dads who take their kids to hospitals to pray with patients and family members. Who do weekly sweeps of their block to pick up litter. Who volunteer together at church or the local YMCA. As soon as my guy is old enough, you better believe we’re tagging along on these service missions.
There’s no complete list of stuff to do with kids, but if nothing else, I hope this gives you some ideas to start with. And I especially hope it helps you pull out of The Spiral.
The Spiral wants you to believe you have to have it all figured out today. Heck, even yesterday. But dads, you can do this! Maybe the reason Malachi 4 says God “inclines” a father’s heart is that like an incline or ramp, fatherhood is a gradual thing. All you have to do is take is one baby—or daddy—step at a time.