My life changed forever on Dec. 16, 1997. I had just finished my first semester of college, but this was the day I became a father. I was 18 years of age and had no clue of what being a father really meant. My idea was making sure the child had food, clothes and shelter.
So, this is how I fathered. For the first six years of my daughter's life, she didn't know me, and I didn't know her. I didn't spend what I know now are the most important years of her life with her. I wasn't there for the Pamper changes, the late-night wake-ups, or even the important moments such as crawling, first steps or first words.
My daughter would sometimes cry whenever she was around me. I remember when she was about 9, hearing her say, "I don't like my daddy, because my mother don't like my daddy." These words pierced my soul and heart, but I had two options: I could get upset with her mother and blame her for putting negative thoughts in her head, or I could analyze my actions to see if what her mother was saying about me was true.
I chose the latter and realized that my daughter's mother was right. I realized that my daughter didn't care that she had nice clothes or was eating every day; even though those things are important, she needed me to be there.
So I took small steps to build our relationship. We were three hours away from each other, so I started calling every morning and every night. I made more efforts to see her, even though I didn't have a car. I started communicating with her mother more often, even when I didn't want to. As of today, my daughter and I have a good relationship. She even came and lived with me a few years ago. She talks to me about anything, even boys. She even gives me relationship advice at times.
We continue building our relationship through "Father/Daughter Date Night." We do this at least once a month. She chooses an activity (movie, bowling, etc.) and a restaurant, and we just talk. This is her time to talk to me about anything without consequences. I am not allowed ask any questions or bring up anything after date night is over. I have learned that I play a major role in my daughter's life. There are some things I can help her with, that her mother can't. I truly know a difference a father makes.
I don't think we realize the impact our absence has on our children. Fathers play a critical role in their development. In contrast, research reveals a number of potentially negative outcomes for children whose fathers are not involved.
Here are a few things we fathers must be mindful of if we want to build healthier relationships with our children.
Stop making false promises. Men, stop making promises to your children without following through. We have to make sure that we are honest with them, even when it may look bad for us.
Be aware of how you treat your child's mother. Understand that the way we treat the women in our lives will have a severe impact on our daughters. If I treat my daughter's mother in a disrespectful manner, my daughter may be disrespected. On the flip side, if I treat her mother like a queen, my daughter will become a queen.
Our sons are impacted. Because we've been absent from their lives for so long, our boys have built up a very hard exterior. We kill their dreams of becoming a productive father and husband. It makes it difficult for them to trust other men that they interact with, such as male teachers, pastors and even police officers. It also becomes difficult for them to trust in any spiritual being.
Our daughters are impacted. I realized that when my daughter was born, I became the first man in her life. It's unrealistic to be absent from your daughter's life for 13, 14 and even 15 years and believe that you can tell her how to dress, who to date or how to conduct herself. Understand that if you don't give your daughter the attention she needs, she will seek attention from another man.
If you don't tell your daughter how cute and pretty she is, she will look for another man to tell her those things. If you don't buy her flowers, she will look for another man to buy her flowers. If you are not there to tuck her in, someday she will look for another man to tuck her in.
To my fellow fathers, understand that our children need us, want us and expect for us to be there. They know the difference that a father makes.
Cassio Batteast is a native of Charleston, Miss., and the founder of K.I.N.G.S. Leadership Institute Inc. Cassio's passion has revolved around building and enhancing communities, but his great passion is being a great father to his teenage daughter. He is also a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Leadership Fellow.