I like to compare the job of a father to that of a long-distance runner. Fathering is a marathon -- a long and often trying journey -- and we must be disciplined if we hope to finish successfully.
To borrow from the writer of Hebrews, we must "throw off everything that hinders and ... run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (12:1). The fathering marathon is a race against ourselves -- a test of our endurance, training, and mental toughness. It's a lifelong commitment. Once a father, always a father.
Some dads start too slowly in the marathon. Maybe they're "pacing themselves," thinking they'll kick in strong later in the race. Maybe they think babies are best left to their mothers: "Let him learn to talk and hold a fishing rod, and then I'll be more involved." These fathers often miss out on the first years of their children's lives, and fall behind in the race.
Some fathers lose time later in the race. Maybe, without even realizing it, they ran off course, working long hours or pursuing some other distraction. Or maybe they pulled back during their children's teen years. This is what a marathon runner would refer to as "hitting the wall" -- the point in the race when his energy is depleted and his muscles begin to cramp. Sadly, some of these dads get so discouraged that they drop out altogether.
I also encounter fathers who run well for most of the course, then walk to the finish line. Since their children have left the house for college, careers, marriage and parenthood, they assume their job is done. But it isn't; it has simply changed. Dads play an important role for adult children -- not to mention those adorable and talented grandchildren.
Committed fathers will diligently train and prepare for the long run. This, of course, involves careful planning. Like a marathon runner examines the course, plans his pace, and pays close attention to his body's needs for water and carbohydrates, we need to survey the terrain of fatherhood and plan accordingly. By doing so, we can head into each stage of our kids' lives with eyes open, ready to make adjustments and meet our children's ever-changing needs.
Fortunately, the course we must traverse -- the stages of our children's growth, as well as the peaks and valleys we're likely to experience as fathers -- has been well mapped. Other dads have been there, and we should tap into their experiences and wisdom. We don't want to spend most of the fathering marathon walking backwards, surveying where we've traveled and muttering, "If I had to do it over again, I'd do it differently," or, "If I only knew then what I know now," or, "Boy, I really missed out."
It doesn't have to be that way. Now is a great time to stop, survey the course, take your pulse, and set out confidently to win with your kids.
Virtues for the Marathon
I encourage dads to work on one virtue that's especially pertinent to his particular fathering stage, using six of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23.
Dads of Infants: PATIENCE. Every errand will take longer now, and you'll need to sacrifice many pleasures and conveniences.
Dads of Pre-Schoolers: GENTLENESS. You need it for a child's temper tantrums, for teaching, for setting boundaries, for giving praise, for administering discipline.
Dads of School-Age Kids: PEACE. It will help you navigate work/family tensions, manage the busy-ness of life, and deal with the unexpected, crazy things kids do.
Dads of Adolescents: SELF-CONTROL. When it seems like your kids are totally out of control, and you want to control them, your best course of action is self-control.
Dads of Young Adults: KINDNESS. You can help with college expenses, let him bring home his laundry, help fix his car, give an encouraging word, etc.
Grandfathers: FAITHFULNESS. As you're soaking up the joy of being a granddad, there are many opportunities to lend a hand and pass on your legacy.
In response to the dramatic trend toward fatherlessness in America, The National Center for Fathering was founded in 1990 by Dr. Ken Canfield to conduct research on fathering and to develop practical resources for dads in nearly every fathering situation. Visit www.fathers.com for more articles and information.