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The Big Realization That Helped Me Become a Better Dad, According to 10 Men

These "ah-ha moments" helped this group of dads become better parents.

Chances are every parent has had an “ah-ha” moment, a time when suddenly and often inexplicably, clarity takes over and a realization sets in that helps you reframe who you are as a parent and person in general. Maybe you realize that you were being too serious and not silly enough in your parenting. Maybe you realized that it’s much better — and simpler — to be honest with children about the long hours you work. For fathers, those moments can be as refreshing as they are eye-opening, reframing duties and elevating the concepts of compassion, understanding, presence, and making the most of every moment. 

These moments of clarity are important. As important is sharing them so that fellow dads can learn the hard-won lessons sooner. That’s why we asked a group of dads to share the realization that made them a better father. They shared stories of ah-ha moments both small and large that happened at charity book fairs and in classrooms. Each contains a bit of wisdom that fathers young and old might learn a thing or two from. 

I realized that I could be the silly dad and not just the serious dad

“When I had my first son, I stopped ‘playing’ in order to be ‘serious’ about being an adult and a father. I gave up a lot of the things I loved to do, like water sports and traveling. I quickly became disgruntled and resentful. My son didn’t deserve that. He never asked me to give up my passions. But my whole family was suffering under my contempt, and I’m ashamed to say just how downtrodden and lost I became. The happy ending came when I realized that I could be myself and my son’s father at the same time. It sounds silly, but I thought I needed to choose one or the other. Really, my silliness and spirit were the levity my family needed most. Once I allowed myself these guilt-free rights, I held the responsibility of parenting closer to my heart. I returned to being the man I wanted to exemplify to my kids.” – Alex, 38, Utah 

I realized I didn’t need to keep work and family separate

“I’ve always been a busy working professional, and I tried my best to make it work with my family. At one point, my son came to visit me at work, and I had a revelation that made me realize what kind of a dad I wanted to be. I always tried to keep work and family separate, but this was the time I realized that it didn’t have to be that way. When my son visited, he was very curious about my work and would constantly ask questions. At one point, I realized how happy I was that he was there and was so curious about what I did. From that point on, I always used work discussions as a way to bond with my children and build a better relationship. They also respect my work more because of that, so they understand to keep away when things get too serious. It’s a relationship I wish for every working dad!” – Akram Assaf, United Arab Emirates 

I realized that I needed to be more involved as a dad

“My wake-up call to become a better father came through the passing of my own dad. I was constantly thinking I wish I’d been different, and spent more time appreciating him when he was alive. So I saw it as my chance to step up and become more involved in the lives of my children. We take the opportunity to get outdoors as often as possible. Fishing is my passion, and there have been trips when I feel the hairs on my arms stand up with the realization that I am pursuing the path of better parenthood. Sometimes it’s the little things that mean the most, like just expressing myself more often and being honest with my feelings. Hopefully, I’m teaching my children that life isn’t always smooth sailing and we all deal with failure in some aspect or another. In short, I want to use the passing of my father to benefit the life of my children, and I hope that my dad looks down on us with pride.” – Liam, 38, California 

I realized I needed to be more present

“I’m the father of two kids, one boy, and one girl. I’ll never forget this certain moment of epiphany that has prompted me not only to become a better father but a better individual as well. My youngest daughter was having her fifth birthday party. After we blew out the candles, she asked me if she would have a birthday every year. I said she would, and she asked, ‘Does that mean I’ll grow up like you?’ I said yes, she would, and she replied with, ‘Then that means you’ll grow up some more and get old like grandpa and grandma? But, Daddy, I want to be with you longer!’ From that moment, I realized how much longer I want to be with my children too. That single instance has prompted me to be more present every time we’re together. It has prompted me to try and maintain an active and healthy lifestyle, and to become a kinder and better parent and individual every chance I get.” – Johnny, 46, California 

I realized I needed to become an advocate for my child

“An individualized educational plan (IEP) meeting for my disabled daughter was how it was billed on paper. To this day, that meeting remains one of the most pivotal moments in my life as a parent. I had felt comfortable and competent as the parent of two children, the youngest autistic, the eldest not. Navigating the world with our daughter taught us to think differently about disability, acceptance, and community. ‘She does not qualify for special education,’ was all the administrator would say that day. Despite the years of assessments and psychological batteries, the letter from her pediatrician and mountains of medical records, and most painfully, despite uncovering that the school had altered my daughter’s test scores to purposefully keep her from the access she required, her predetermined position would not change. On that day I was forced to become an advocate. Because on that day, I was painted as a difficult parent. Both labels put me on a path that challenged everything I knew about myself, and forced me to re-examine parenting.” – Aaron Wright, 46, California

I realized I had to be a better example for my daughters 

“I was at a charity book sale and saw an old copy of Dr. Spock on Parenting by Dr. Benjamin Spock on sale for one dollar. I thought for a dollar, I couldn’t go wrong. It was the best parenting dollar I ever spent. As I read it, I could see why Dr. Spock’s book Baby and Child Care was one of the bestselling books of the 20th century. Ask any baby-boomer if their parents read Dr. Spock. They all did. In one of his chapters on being a father, he wrote that if you want to be a good father you have to be a role model to and a leader of your children. The wisdom in that sentence hit me. I realized that I had to step forward and take the lead on dealing with situations involving my daughters. I had to be an example of the values I wanted my daughters to have. I had to be the kind of man I wanted my daughters to choose. It transformed me from being someone who was more of their mother’s helper to being their father.” – Elliot, 56, Toronto   

I realized I needed to start re-considering my children’s viewpoints

I have two teenagers, 15 and 17. For all of us, 2020 was a rough year all around. Not just because of COVID, but because of the general state of everything. We had a conversation about all the things affecting the world and, in turn, their lives. I learned that my kids have a much different perspective about the world than I do. I have always led with a ‘my way or the highway’ philosophy, and being made aware of their perspectives made me realize I needed to take a step back and reassess. They were scared about how rapidly the world was changing. And, honestly, I was too. After that initial discussion, we had many others. We really learned to communicate and be open with each other. This was such an extraordinary time for me as a dad. I was able to put my viewpoints on the back burner and listen to what they had to say about the world. The issues that are important to them are much clearer now, and important to me as well.” – Steve, 48, Arizona 

I realized I didn’t need to hide information about my work

“Sometimes bringing home extra work or putting in longer hours is unavoidable, especially when you’re the boss. One day I stopped to talk to my kids and tell them exactly why I had to work so often and for so long this particular week, and I realized that was the key to both lessening my guilt and helping them understand why I’d be gone more than usual. I started explaining to my kids why I’d have to bring work home or stay at the office longer, in simple terms they’d understand. I also made sure to always tell them it was just for a few days. Rather than try to hide it or ignore the fact that I was seeing them less, I gave them a reason why. They understand that when I have to work late it’s just temporary, and that’s made us all happier.” Gabriel, North Carolina   

I realized how fast the years were passing by

“I think I realized how fast time was going by the day my youngest son graduated elementary school. I began to see that time spent with my kids wasn’t something I could ever get back. I stopped worrying about work so much, and tried to be more present and focused on my family. I used to always hear, ‘The days are long but the years fly by.’ When I watched my son graduating, it hit me that in eight years he would be gone from home forever. It really changed my perspective, and I devoted that last decade to being present. Not just physically, but invested in every minute with my kids and my family.” – Hugh, 48, Oregon

I realized how I could be more supportive of my daughters 

I am a father and a husband. I was obviously aware of menstruation but didn’t understand it as intimately as I could have until my daughters began experiencing it. They shared details that helped me realize what an individual experience it is for women, and ultimately helped me become a more educated and involved father. As men, our first connections are with our wives and daughters. Typically, we just pay lip service. So my ‘ah-ha’ moment was realizing just how frustrating that part of a young woman’s life can be, and how it’s my job as a father to support that. As fathers, we need to be open to talking. I’m lucky to have two daughters who feel comfortable sharing so much with me.” – Steve, 65, California

I realized that I needed to empathize more with my kids

“One of the moments that made me a more understanding and focused parent was when I saw my son struggling with basic arithmetic. My son is an intelligent boy. But, it was heartbreaking to see how overwhelmed he got when math didn’t make sense to him. I realized I had to change my approach and look for more creative ways to teach him. We tried using his fingers and flashcards. He did well, but eventually became overwhelmed again. It was heartbreaking. He looked so lost. So, we stopped, took a break, and I let him know, ‘It’s okay.’ Although some things can seem obvious to adults, it’s not fair to assume kids will get it right away. I’ve worked on empathizing more with my children. Sometimes it helps to put more effort into understanding where your child is coming from to help find the right strategy to help them out.” – Jonathan, 37, Nebraska