Looking Back

What I Wish I Prioritized More When My Kids Were Little, According To 12 Dads

Looking back, here are the skills and lessons these men would’ve emphasized for their kids a bit more.

Dad and son at table doing schoolwork together

Life can only be lived in one direction. Among other things, this means that you won’t know the effect of your choices until you’re further down the road. From that vantage point, it’s easy to say Oh, I wish I did more of X or less of Y with my kids. In the moment? It’s much harder. What helps is to hear from those who’ve been where you are and have the ability to look back on their choices. To that end, we recently reached out to a dozen dads to ask them about what they wish they prioritized more when their kids were little. That is, what was the skill or subject or lesson they wish they emphasized a little bit more? From creativity and self-reliance to open-mindedness and a greater appreciation of nature, their answers cover a variety of topics. No, they might not apply directly to you. But we hope they encourage you to take a step back and think about a few things you’d like to stress more. Here’s what they told us.

1. Getting Dirty

“I wish that I’d prioritized exploration more with my kids when they were little. We would go on our little family adventures, but they were always so safe and insular. I was always terrified to let my kids get ‘dirty’ for fear that they might become sick, or get injured. It wasn’t until they were much older that I realized how resilient kids are and that, regardless of what may have happened, they would’ve probably been fine. Not just that, but they would’ve learned lessons, gotten some stories to tell, and grown tougher if they were allowed — and encouraged — to get a little more dirty every now and then.” - Caleb, 48, Texas

2. Curiosity

“If there's anything I could’ve nudged more slightly it would have been actively nurturing my children’s curiosity even sooner than I did. Don't get me wrong, we always encouraged questions and exploration. But I realize now there was room for an even more proactive approach. In our home, we started a tradition — ‘Fun Fact Friday’ dinner talks. I would share intriguing snippets from my travels, or fascinating tidbits I'd learned. And I would see a spark in their eyes, followed usually by endless questions and eagerness to learn more. I can't help but think, What if we had started this earlier? How much more could they have learned? How many more dinner talks could we have had?” - Nick, 41, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

It’s such a blessing when your kid makes friends and I guess I just didn’t know how to prioritize nurturing those relationships beyond setting up playdates.

3. Independence

“I wish I prioritized allowing my kids to be more independent when they were little, instead of doing everything for them. I knew as a new father I wanted to provide the best for them, as I didn’t want them to go through a rough childhood the way I did. But I never realized that I made them so dependent on me and I believe I missed an opportunity to help them develop a sense of self-confidence.” - Alan, 38, Singapore

4. Problem Solving

“I wish I'd put more emphasis on encouraging their independence, even at a very young age. I believe strongly now that fostering independence in our children from a young age equips them with the confidence to explore, learn, and grow in a world where we won't always be there to guide them. Reflecting on my own journey, my ability to think independently, take calculated risks, and be self-reliant have been the drivers of my success. Therefore, in the grand scheme of child-rearing, I wish I'd instilled more of these values when my children were younger. Instead of providing direct answers to their questions, for example, I could have encouraged problem-solving by asking, 'What do you think we should do?' This question nudges them to form an opinion, fostering independent thought. In hindsight, I understand that promoting early independence doesn't undermine parent-child bonding but rather adds another layer to it — a layer that could equip them with life-long resilience.” - Thomas, 39, Madrid, Spain

5. My Romantic Relationship With My Wife

As I look at my now 25-year-old daughter, my biggest regret is that I didn’t prioritize the consistent dating of my wife, her mother, during the formative years. All too often, I was busy trying to advance my career or letting other activities crowd out the modeling of a great romance with her mom. Instead, I fear that my daughter all too often witnessed the dull and boring aspects of marriage. I want my daughter to be adored and anticipate it from her husband. And while I know that my daughter feels secure in herself, I can’t help but think that seeing a vibrant love always on display between her most important caregivers could not help but build even more confidence in her life.” - Bret, 60, California

6. Creativity

“I’m not uncreative, but creativity has never been my strong suit. I’m not an artist. I can’t sing or play musical instruments. I’ve always just been kind of a logical, boring guy. And I’m okay with that. My wife is okay with that. And our kids are okay with that. But our kids have turned out to be very creative. One is a design student, and the other loves to paint. So what I regret not prioritizing more would be the act of stretching out of my comfort zone to try and nurture and guide what turned out to be their true passions. Even if I did a horrible job, I think there would be value in me having put myself out there to see what my kids were interested in.” - Daniel, 57, New Jersey

7. Healthy Habits

“When you raise kids, you’ll take any help you can get to make things a little easier and a little more convenient. Unfortunately, that means sometimes cutting corners and being more lazy than you probably should when it comes to things like being active, or eating healthy. Sometimes it’s easier to sit and watch TV or play video games than to go on a hike as a family. Sometimes — most times — it’s easier to hit the drive-thru than to go home and cook a balanced meal. So what I wish I prioritized earlier would be setting the example that, even though being lazy can seem enticing, it’s ultimately worth it to make the effort to be active and healthy, especially as a family, whenever you can.” - Al, 42, Pennsylvania

8. An Appreciation of Nature

“I didn’t learn to appreciate nature until I moved into a big city, and it wasn’t around me anymore. Before that, I took it for granted. When I moved out of the city to start a family with my wife, I didn’t even think that I would have to actively impress upon my kids the beauty of nature. I thought that, like me when I moved back, they would just be so grateful to be surrounded by it that they would learn that lesson early. What I didn’t realize is that they didn’t have the same frame of reference I did, and never knew what it was like to be without nature. They were like me before I moved to the city. And even though we’ve lived in the same place since they were born, I guess I wish I prioritized how incredible the world outside is, so that if they ever do move to a big city, they’d have been able to appreciate and embrace it as much as possible.” - Jon, 40, Vermont

Instead of providing direct answers to their questions, for example, I could have encouraged problem-solving by asking, 'What do you think we should do?'

9. My Own Self-Care

“As a first-time dad, I was a mess. I was neurotic, and riddled with all kinds of anxiety. For the sake of my wife and my daughter, I wish I had prioritized my own self-care more effectively. At the time, I don’t think I really knew what self-care meant. I thought it was enough just to be around and awake. I didn’t prioritize my mental or physical health, and eventually it caught up with me. I became depressed and irritable, and probably the worst version of myself I’d ever been. All at the time when my family needed me the most. I ended up going to therapy, and I’m very grateful I was able to right myself before it became too late, or I missed any more time with my daughter when she was little. It’s a regret I’ll always have, the fact that I didn’t know prioritizing myself could be a part of prioritizing my family.” - Hal, 44, Colorado

10. Time

“It’s very cliché, but I wish I’d prioritized how I spent my time when my kids were little. I wish I’d slowed down a lot more and taken time to realize that what I needed to do wasn’t work more, travel more for my job, or concern myself with all the crap that ultimately ended up being completely meaningless. There will always be another deadline. There will always be another project. There will always be another fire that needs to be put out. But those aren’t my priorities anymore, and I wish they hadn’t been when my kids were little. They were only young once, and I’m sorry I wasted the time I did by not seeing that as my only priority.” - Kendall, 51, New York

11. Open-Mindedness

“I was very stubborn as a new father. I thought I knew everything, and whatever I didn’t know I thought wasn’t important. I was very stuck in my own way, and I didn’t realize the effect that would have on my kids. First, while I always acted with their best interests, health, and safety in mind, it turns out I didn’t know everything. Shocker. Through that stubbornness, I think I probably deprived them of a lot of experiences, and made their early lives very one-dimensional. Second, as they grew older, and when they started acting stubborn, it was all too familiar. I have no doubt that, even though they were young, they learned it from me. I thought I was prioritizing them by acting the way I did, but I think I was really prioritizing myself, my insecurities, and my own ego as a dad. I regret it.” - Zachary, 54, North Carolina

12. Getting To Know Their Friends

“When my kids started making friends, probably around kindergarten or first grade, I wasn’t really interested in getting to know them. It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I couldn’t figure out how to relate to a kid that wasn’t mine. I was great with my kids when we were alone, but I got the feeling that they and their friends didn’t want me around when they were together. It’s a silly thing to assume of a bunch of seven-year-olds, and I regret not prioritizing making more of an effort to play with them, be silly with them, or even just interact with them here and there. It’s such a blessing when your kid makes friends and I guess, as a dad, I just didn’t know how to prioritize nurturing those relationships beyond setting up playdates.” - Mike, 42, Florida