31 Damn Good Pieces of Parenting Advice From Dads Who’ve Been There

Take these notes to heart.

by Fatherly
Originally Published: 
Flickr/okadots (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There’s a lot you can do to prepare for becoming a parent. Read the books, the blogs, think about what kind of parents you want to be. But there’s also a lot that you can only look back on and know in hindsight. How certain behaviors will affect your kids. What going back to work will be like. What minor frustrations and surprising truths lie in the everyday work of raising a family. The wins and losses, the lessons learned. So what advice should parents listen to? That’s up to you. But we think this list of 31 pieces of insight from dads, both new and experienced, divorced and happily married, are worth reading — and taking to heart.

Be as Present as Possible

There’s always going to be another deadline, another assignment that needs to be done. What doesn’t last forever is the time you get to spend with your kids. “I wish I’d taken more time, both staying home from work and not working as much,” Jeremy, 44, admitted to us. “Whatever I accomplished didn’t matter in the long term compared to that incredibly precious and fleeting time you have when they’re little. Shit just doesn’t matter in the end. I was definitely present for my kids, but I wish I’d been even more present. I really think this is why grandparents spoil grandkids so much. Because they finally have the time to dote on their grandkids in a way they couldn’t for their own kids.”

It’s Good Be More Vulnerable

Openness is critical for the health of a marriage — and to provide kids a healthy emotional model. And as Richie from Texas told us, being more vulnerable would have saved his marriage. “I met my wife when I was a hotshot professional. I had money, a fancy car, confidence, all that. After we got married, I lost my job. But I was determined not to let her see me as anything less than who I was when we first got together,” he said. “I kept up a pretty good facade, but I was really struggling inside, especially with my identity. I know she was on to me, because she always offered to talk. But I was always like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ Eventually, she got tired of my bullshit, and it just snowballed from there. She wasn’t sure how to trust me anymore, all because I was trying to play it cool.”

Be More Understanding of Your Kid’s Phases

“Everything is a phase,” John, 62, made a point to remind us. Whining. Hitting. Being surly. Understanding that and acting accordingly are important. “If you’ve done your job, and you’ve guided your kid, he’ll come out of them with the best lessons learned, and leave the bullshit behind. Your kid will go in and out of things when he’s ready, and you just have to be accepting. Sometimes, that’s brutally hard. But, even if the phase outlasts you, the discomfort won’t if you don’t let it.”

Give Therapy a Try

Although it is far more accepted these days than ever before, a lot of men view therapy as a mark of shame, something that tells the world that they have a problem. For Joe, a 41-year-old divorced dad from Chicago, his refusal to go to therapy ultimately ended his marriage and made things harder on his kids. “My wife asked me to go to therapy about a dozen times. First, on my own, just to deal with some issues I was having. Then, when I wouldn’t do that, she asked me to go as a couple. I felt so embarrassed, I guess. I couldn’t go through with it. It wasn’t the actual act of refusing therapy that doomed my marriage, but I do think it resulted in a lot of issues that could’ve been worked out with the help of a professional. If anything, it would’ve been worth a shot. My ego got in the way. But, really, what did I have to lose by trying?”

Don’t Fall Into the Social Media Trap

Constantly peering into the seemingly perfect lives of others is not healthy for yourself or your relationships. And this is what Instagram and other such social media inherently allow. As Gabriel, a 37-year-old divorced dad explained, a social media obsession ultimately ended his marriage and made him think the grass was always greener. “Social media is like the Garden of Eden,” he said. “It’s just this perfect, picturesque landscape of life highlights that you become completely enamored with. And then you take a bite out of one, either by finding someone else’s life you think you’d rather have, or reading about happy, successful marriages when you’re struggling, and you get addicted. You keep going back for more, looking for clues about how you can have that life. And what you don’t realize is that it’s not possible unless you carefully curate all the good stuff, and disavow the bad.” Gabriel said that he and his wife were both guilty of this and often compared themselves and their marriage to others. And they did it knowing they were only seeing half the picture. “A lot of the couples we knew used to say, ‘Why can’t we be more like…?’ about are divorced now, too,” he added. “It still blows my mind how social media just toxified what I thought was a pretty great relationship.”

Try Not to Stress Out Over Your Kid’s Interests

It’s easy to forget that raising kids is a marathon, not a sprint and that kids will develop their own interests and personalities. “I used to be so worried about my son not having any interests or activities,” Jeremy a 44-year-old dad from New York told us. “My oldest was always so quiet and introverted. I was always trying to get him to do one thing or another, and stressing about it.” Eventually, Jeremy said, all on his own his son began getting into music and photography. “Next thing I know, he’s been accepted to seven colleges and playing drums at our church. I really wish I’d just relaxed more and realized that he’d find his own path without me having to pave it for him.”

Kids Are Tougher Than You Think

“Kids are resilient. They can take a lot, especially when they’re at that age when it’s just starting to be cool to be tough,” Brian, a 38-year-old dad from Ohio told us. This is easier said than done for a lot of dads — and Brian was one of them. His son broke his arm in karate class and, as he explained, he probably cried more than he did. “I had to watch my son, my baby — even though he was, like, 8 — get put in an ambulance, go to the hospital, go into surgery, and all that. Even through his tears, he was like, ‘Dad, I’ll be fine.’ I don’t regret the way I reacted — well, maybe a little — but I definitely should’ve reminded myself that those things happen, and that he was a tough kid.”

You Don’t Have to Act Like Your Parents

Many parents reflexively look to their pasts to understand what is right and wrong. But it’s not always necessary to do as your own mom and dad did — or to listen to their advice. “My parents were good parents, and they mean well, but they definitely screwed some things up,” said Jordan, a 35-year-old dad from Florida. “And they were very heavy-handed when it came to telling us how to raise our kids. My wife took exception to it, and I was torn. Ultimately, we made a lot of our own decisions and ended up with some wonderful, wonderful kids. When they’re young, kids are like a project for everyone. I appreciated the input, but I needed to lean the right way when I was trying to balance.”

Take an Active Interest in Your Kids’ Hobbies, No Matter How Weird

A little kid’s interests can be unexciting and, well, boring. But a lot of dads we spoke to expressed regret about not enjoying their kid’s activities with them and, as a result, missing out on a big bonding experience. Take Al, a 44-year-old dad from Pennsylvania. “My son was super into Pokémon when he was about 10,” he told us. “He was just obsessed with it. And he was so excited to share it with anyone who would listen. I was very ‘meh’ about it. Like, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ Or, ‘Neat!’ I really missed a chance there. I didn’t need to become a Pokémon expert, but sometimes I think of the way my son’s face would’ve lit up if I asked him to teach me how to play, or explain the different characters. Or if I surprised him with a special card or something. It was his thing, but there were parts of it that could’ve been our thing, too, if I’d been a little more proactive.”

Talk to Your Kids About Money — the Right Way

Teaching kids about money is, much like discussions of sex and consent, a lifelong process. And parents who neglect to talk about money issues with their kids — or speak about family finances in an unhelpful way — often regret it. “I wish I knew how much talking about money in front of my kids would’ve influenced them,” Keith, a 43-year-old dad from Ohio, confessed to us. “I wish I knew how much talking about money in front of my kids would’ve influenced them. We were never poor or anything, but I was always so frugal. And, looking back, the way I phrased things — saying, ‘We can’t afford that’, instead of ‘That’s pretty expensive’ — planted seeds. Now, they both stress out about money all the time. You always hear to be careful about what you say around your kids, but you never consider subtle things like that. It’s fine, just something I would’ve done differently.”

Be Prepared to Sacrifice

Raising kids shifts your priorities — and a lot of parents need to come to terms with that. “I had to give up pursuing my master’s degree online at night. I was about a year into my MBA program when my wife got pregnant, and I had to drop everything once the baby got close,” Darrell, a 40-year-old dad from Colorado told us. “Of course, my family was my priority, but I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be able to just pick right back up once the baby arrived. Workdays were manageable, but the time at night was now completely devoted to my wife and son. So, I had to sacrifice that part of my life. Again, totally worth it — and I hope to be able to pick things back up once our son is older — but it was a little bit disappointing to have to abandon all of that hard work.”

One-on-One Time Is Really Important

Kids learn a lot from one-on-one time for parents and several moms and dads expressed regret by not capitalizing on solo time with their kids. “My wife and I made such an effort to hang out with our daughter ‘as a family,’ ” Darryl, 40, from Colorado told us. “I think I — and we — could’ve benefitted from more alone, one-on-one time here and there. You know, just like a trip to the grocery store, or even a walk down the street. Just dad and daughter. Or mom and daughter. Everything turned out fine, but those memories would’ve been special, I think.”

Go Easy on Yourself

Raising kids is intense. There are so many things big and small that could go wrong and have adverse effects on kids as they grow up. And for this reason parents are often hard on themselves. But that’s not healthy — or useful. “Instead of questioning every decision I made, I might only question, like, every third or fourth decision,” Aaron, 37, from Illinois told us. “When my kids were young, I would constantly question myself. ‘Did they brush their teeth for long enough?’ ‘Is this laundry detergent safe for baby skin?’ It was just endless self-doubt. Instead of doing that, I would pick my battles, for sure. ‘Is this school system worth moving for?’ Definitely a necessary question to answer. ‘Will my kid get salmonella from licking a Lego?’ I’d let that one go.”

Quitting That Shitty Job Can Save a Marriage

“It was an awful, awful job, and I came home miserable just about every day,” Matthew, a 35-year-old divorced father from New Jersey told us. “I definitely brought that shit home, and it … infected my marriage.” Separating work life from home life is difficult for many. Matthew was no exception. He said he was tense and depressed from the stress. And he couldn’t bring himself to quit. “My wife kept urging me to quit, too. She brought up the effect it was having on our relationship. But, I couldn’t stomach the thought of being unemployed.” In the end, Matthew kept going into work and kept coming home stressed. “Eventually, she’d had enough, and we split up. I miss her every day, but I can’t say I blame her. I was insufferable to be around, and she didn’t deserve that.” — Matthew, 35, New Jersey

Sometimes, You’ll Hate Being a Parent. It Happens

“Before I had kids, people — mainly my parents — told me to ‘enjoy every moment, because you’ll blink and it’ll all be over.’ It made me feel so guilty on those nights I just wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry because I wasn’t enjoying being a parent,” Jason, a 36-year-old dad from West Virginia, told us. Jason said he doesn’t think there’s anything particularly glamorous or enjoyable about the actual parenting part of having kids. But, he explained, “What’s fun — those moments that you’ll blink and miss — come as a result from all the grueling, hard work you put in on those nights you just want to wave the white flag. No one told me that. So, it really messed with my psyche when I’d start to resent my kid for shitting his diaper three times in two hours instead of taking a fond mental picture and storing it away in my heart.”

Your Inner Skeptic Might Be Unleashed

It’s true. Parenting unleashes your inner skeptic. Many dads shared this truth with us, including Jay, a 39-year-old dad in New York “Babysitters. Teachers. Companies. Everyone is out to harm my child. (laughs),” he said. “I know that’s not true, but it’s how I first felt after becoming a parent. I was so protective that I became skeptical of everyone and everything that had a chance to impact my son’s health and safety. As he grew up, and as we interacted with more people and products who would play roles in his life, I lightened up. But I never would’ve pegged myself for, really, an infant conspiracy theorist during those first few years. My wife says I’ve been like that about everything. Guess I never realized?”

Yeah, Going Back to Work — and Missing All Those Little Moments — Sucks

“I struggled with the feeling of knowing I was missing out on so many little, mundane things. Even being gone for eight hours was hard because I didn’t want to miss anything. First burp. First spit-up. First roll over. All of those small, seemingly pointless things happened while I was at work. My wife would call me and say, ‘Guess what he just did?’ Sometimes I had to fight back tears because, even if whatever our son did wasn’t super important, the concept of not being there for it tore me apart.”

Be a Family Chronicler

It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it true: Kids grow up quickly. And, while living in the moment with them is essential, it’s important to document the memories so you can have things to look back on. As Rudy, a 41-year-old dad from Ohio explained, he took a lot of photos, but always wanted more. “I would take photos of everything. I’m a photo nut as it is. I have memory cards and jump drives full of pics from when our family was growing. I’ve had to upgrade Cloud storage,” he said. “All that. But, the reason I’m doing it is because who knows what memory I’ll suddenly wish I could relive 40 years from now? Maybe there’s one, very specific moment that I’ll want to see a picture of. So, yeah, I would probably nudge myself to keep clicking away.”

Sick Days Aren’t For You Anymore

When you become a parent, sick days belong to your kids. “I had to hoard my sick and personal days like doomsday rations, in case my kid got sick and I had to stay home,” Jason, a 41-year-old Ohio father told us. “My wife did the same thing. That meant going to work sick way more than I would’ve liked. I actually had a fight with my boss about it. I told him he could give me more sick days, or let me use them at my discretion. I played it pretty well, too — I only took one sick day for myself the whole year, and didn’t infect anyone at work. Parenting win.”

Work Guilt Will Be Natural

“This is weird, but I would sometimes feel guilty when I forgot about my kid. Like, if I was really invested in a project, or a meeting, or even a phone call, I would focus solely on that,” said Brian, a 38-year-old dad from Ohio. “And then, out of nowhere, a thought about my son would pop into my head. And it made me feel guilty, like I should’ve been thinking of him the whole time. That feeling went away over time, but I remember it because it was very specific, and very strange. As a new father, you feel like your kid should be on your mind all the time, which isn’t physically possible. Not if you want to continue being a functioning adult.”

But Your Job Will Mean So Much More to Your

“I work in an industry where there are a lot of layoffs, and a lot of turnover. So, I’d been let go from jobs plenty of times before. I’d gotten good at rolling with the punches and bouncing back strong, but my attitude changed dramatically when I lost my job after having our first child,” Matt, a 38-year-old dad told us. “It was my confidence. Suddenly, the weight of the world wasn’t just mine — it was my entire family’s. I was shaken to the core, because I thought that the stakes were so high and I’d never recover. So much pressure — mostly from myself. Having a kid reframes your self-confidence in a way that makes every accomplishment or failure so much more meaningful.”

Being a Parent Often Makes You Feel Powerless

“Plans and schedules are nice, in theory. But, in practice, all they do is make you feel like you have no control. It’s like Jurassic Park, where they try to get the dinosaurs to show up on the tour — you can’t expect a young child to stick to your routine He or she is going to eat when he or she is hungry, sleep when he or she is tired, and do everything else when he or she feels like it,” Aaron a 39-year-old dad from Toronto told us. “I have three kids now, so I’ve learned that adaptation and flexibility are my best friends. You’re not incompetent or a bad parent — you’re just not as in control as you’d like to be.”

You’ll Miss Your Personal Space a Bit

Having kids often means you forfeit any type of personal space — not because little kids are malicious, it’s just that they don’t understand the idea of boundaries and they want to hang out and play and bounce on you. “I used to have time and space to myself when I would get home from work, and I could just chill and relax before easing in to the evening,” Robert, a 37-year-old dad from Connecticut told us. “But now, it’s like nothing is sacred. Not my chair. Not our bed. Nothing. I sound like an asshole, I know. And it’s totally a case of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. I actually cherish my desk at work, because with toys and stuff everywhere at home, personal space is a thing of the past.”

The Transition to Daycare Will Come with a Lot of Questions

All daycares are not created equal, and there are a lot of things parents need to suss out. This, as Will a 33-year-old dad from Ohio, learned the hard way. “ I had no idea that there were so many questions that needed to be — or, at least, could be — asked beforehand. My wife had a list that was legitimately two pages long. Some examples: What is your discipline policy? How do you foster social/emotional growth? How will your program help my child develop life skills? They made sense. But they just never, ever crossed my mind. I guess I was more concerned with the ratio of cubbies-to-children, and the quality of pudding cups for snack time. But you’re paying for a service, and you need to be informed. We found, too, that the ‘good’ daycare places didn’t even flinch when it came to answering any of those questions. They were ready, and they made sure we knew they were committed to doing a good job for our kids.”

It Makes You Wish You Were in Better Shape

Playing with kids is exhausting. So is carrying kids and all the stuff they need to, you know, live and thrive. As Jeff from New Jersey shared, fatherhood confronted him with the notion that he’s not as in shape as he realized. “Even when our daughter wasn’t super active, I was struggling to stay awake, and to sleep, and to keep up with the hectic schedule of caring for her. It was physically demanding, and much more exhausting than it should have been,” he told us. “You have to be in shape to have a kid. It’s a lot of work. Like a lot of work. And the physical part is the easy part. That’s the part that you can control most directly, by not becoming a slob. If you let that go, it gives way to mental instability, emotional instability, and all sorts of other problems. The day you find out you’re pregnant, start doing some squats or Zumba or something. It’ll help come crunch time.”

The First Drop Off Will Make You Weep

Whether it’s for pre-school, day care, or at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, dropping off a kid for the first time will never be easier for new parents. “The first time we dropped our son off, he bawled. And, once we got to the car, my wife and I did too,” Kirk, a 32-year-old dad from Oregon, told us. “I imagine dropping your child off with a relative stranger and waving goodbye is one of the most gut-wrenching things a parent can do. Our son cried every day we dropped him off for about a week. And it was awful. We’d put on our brave faces, but then we’d lose it as soon as we were out of view. The good news — it does get easier. You start to hear that your child is making friends, showing interest in certain things, and starting to grow. And that’s what you want. But, man, I will never forget the pain of that first week. I’m tearing up a little bit just thinking about it.”

Read the Fine Print

Whether it’s directions on car seat or the words of a day care rider, parenting comes with a lot of fine print. And it needs to be understood. “Daycare business 101: Read your agreement very carefully,” advised James, a 35-year-old dad from Massachusetts. “On more than one occasion, my wife and I got blindsided by random costs, mainly associated with holidays. There was a Labor Day, I think, where we didn’t take our son in because we were both home from work. But, apparently, we’d ‘reserved’ that day when we signed up as part of a more blanket contract. So, we still had to pay. Maybe that’s not a universal thing, but the lesson is to make sure you know your daycare’s policies on cancellations, holidays, and stuff like that. You could end up paying for days you don’t use.”

Give Kids’ Growing Brains More Credit

“I wish I knew how absorbent kids were,” Keith, a 43-year-old dad from Ohio told us. “Their brains are just constantly taking stuff in. My son is 12 now, and he reminds me about stuff we did when he was, like, 3 years old. Not detail by detail, but definitely much more clearly than I can remember some of those things. The rub is that he remembers the good — like pony rides and the ceramic owl that inspired his first word — but also the times when his mother and I were going through rough patches. Again, he doesn’t remember exactly what was said or anything, but he says he remembers the feelings around the house. Looking back, I wish I would’ve given his growing brain a little more credit.”

Babies Need a Lot of Space

Or rather, a baby’s stuff does. “We had a nursery, and I thought that would be good to go. But, man, babies require stuff! All kinds of stuff. There’s the basic lot of diapers and toys and clothes, but then there’s space you need for the strollers, the car seats, the gates, the special furniture,” Jonathan, 39, told us. “It’s a lot! And the bummer is, most of it is obsolete after about six months or a year because the baby just keeps growing. Thank God for Craigslist, ya know?”

Pick Your Battles

The same rule applies to marital arguments as it does with those who are three feet shorter than you: not every argument needs to be won. “I wish I knew how to pick my battles. For some reason — I say some reason, but really it was crappy parenting blogs and friends with kids — I thought I had to ‘win’ every argument with my daughter when she was young,” Brian, a 38-year-old dad told us. “I felt like it was necessary to establish myself as an authority figure. I had to be my own iron regime, or my kid would start taking advantage of my weakness, exposing my flaws, blah, blah, blah. The truth is, it absolutely did not matter if she ate all of her vegetables or stayed up an extra 20 minutes. In fact, lightening up and not arguing with her about every little thing probably would’ve saved me a few wrinkles.”

It’s More Than Okay to Ask for Help

Parenting creates tunnel vision. They’re your kids and you need to be there for everything Asking help? That’s admitting weakness, right? Wrong. Most of the parents we’ve talked to say that, despite how hard it was, asking for help gave them a sliver of sanity back — and made their kids happier. “I wish I’d asked for more help. Not just to lighten the load of raising a child, but because I was surrounded by people who knew what they were talking about,” says Adam, a 44-year-old dad from Georgia. “I was so determined to, like, forge my own path that I think I put a lot of pressure on myself — and probably my wife — that I really didn’t need to. There were people around us who loved us and wanted to help, and we did let them, but I definitely could’ve been more flexible, I think.”

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