Fathering is Like Running a Marathon

Charting the Course

ages & stages treeIn The Heart of a Father, Dr Ken Canfield likens the job of a dad and a long distance runner:  Fathering is often a long and trying journey that requires a disciplined heart to successfully finish the course.

Fathering is not a series of isolated events but a continuous and continuing identity. You are unlikely to succeed if you fleetingly pop in and out of your child’s life. Rather, you need to be committed for the long haul to win the race.

Research at the National Center for Fathering has proposed a life course for fathering comprising four main stages based on the age of the father’s oldest child: Attachment, Idealism, Understanding and Enlightenment, and the tasks accomplished at each.

For Fathers of Infants: Attachment (birth through age one)

This is the stage where the strongest emotions you may have ever been through, is surfaced. You get to experience and identify with an emotional side of life you might not have been accustomed to. Here, it is important to lay the groundwork for an emotional intimacy and bond with your children that will last throughout the life course.

At this stage, get involved in your child’s life by:

1) Being present. Witness the birth of your child. Mark significant milestones in the first year. For example, Chinese families gather for a Full Moon Celebration when the infant is one month old.

2) Taking on caregiving tasks. Carry, bathe and feed your baby so that he can be secure in your presence.

For Fathers of Preschoolers: Idealism (ages two through five)

During this stage, you will gain knowledge of your child’s personality, establish your own priorities, and deepen your commitment to the fathering role. Idealism entails bringing together all those desires as a father and establishing specific goals and actions you want to put into motion.

At this stage, be involved in your child’s life by:

1) Instilling healthy discipline. Understand what motivates your child. That will allow you to know how to lay down ground rules such as the amount of time he or she can spend playing computer games each day.

2) Reading with your child. Many Singaporean children watch an excessive amount of television programmes. However, sitting in front of the gogglebox does not foster the kind of physical closeness reading does; reading brings your young child right into your lap, allowing both of you to interact as the story comes to life through enactment and imagination.

For Fathers of School-Age Children: Understanding (ages six through 12)

As a father, your greatest task at this stage is to facilitate understanding. You will start to identify the child’s motivations, talents and gifts, and to engage with him or her emotionally.

At this stage, be involved in your child’s life by:

1) Letting him or her explore. Go for a hike or bike ride to scenic areas such as East Coast Park or Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and let your child play the role of Little Explorer. Do not confine your child to the four corners of the house.

2) Helping him or her establish links with the outside world. One important place this begins is the school.  Be open to receiving feedback from your child’s primary school teachers, sport coaches, as well as music or art instructors. They can provide valuable perspectives on your child.

For Fathers of Teens: Enlightenment (13 onwards)

Enlightenment is the crucial stage where your teen learns about his or her identity and seeks for independence. At the same time, he or she is “not-yet-adult” and needs your support and guidance.

At this stage, be involved in your teen’s life by:

1) Listening actively. Your previously chatty child may no longer offer up information as readily as before. Learn how to engage him or her in conversation by giving the assurance that you are listening.

2) Providing support in times of crisis or failure with patience and persistency.

As a dad, you too, need to make a transition even as you prepare your child for the transition to adulthood. During this stage, like the man well into a marathon, a father often “hits the wall”. Gone is the adrenaline and enthusiasm of the Attachment and Idealism stages, exhausted is the steady pace of the Understanding period, and what overtakes a father is often pain.

There is no doubt that fathering in the stage of Enlightenment is difficult, often painful work. However, it is arguable that your teen needs you now greater than he or she ever will. As fathers, stay in the race by reminding yourselves of the motivation for fathering: unconditional love. You express that love by being willing to persevere and keep running -to simply do your duty.

Re-energised, you will run past your “wall”, find your “second wind”, and make the transition to a new joy in fathering.


Canfield, Ken, R., (2006) The Heart of a Father: How You can Become a Dad of Destiny, Northfield, Chicago, United States.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 13-09-2011.

Categories: Ages and Stages

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