Though they are next-door neighbors, Jeff Newingham says he and his father sometimes struggle to communicate.
"We have a relationship, and I know he loves me," says Newingham, a plumber from Earle, Arkansas. "We spend time together working on cars, but we can't talk about certain issues. There are things I want to say to him, but it's tough."
Even as he tries to break the ice with his dad, Newingham is intentional about keeping the lines of communication open with his own children, ages 7 and 11.
Two years ago, Newingham participated in a program called Letters From Dad at his church, First Assembly of God in Earle. The course encourages fathers to pen personal letters to their children, putting in writing everything from their paternal sentiments to their Christian values. For Newingham, it served as a reminder of the importance of connecting through words.
"I really want to maintain a close relationship with my girls," Newingham says. "I want them to know how I feel, and I want them to be able to tell me anything."
Bobby Ragan, senior pastor at the church, says the program's message resonated with many of the men in the congregation.
"A lot of them said, 'I know my father loved me, but he never came out and said it. He never affirmed it with his words,'" Ragan says.
Today's generation of fathers and children is often no better at bridging the communication gap, Ragan says.
"Even though we have all these time-saving devices, in many ways we're more disconnected than ever," Ragan says. "Many parents are little more than shuttle-bus drivers for their kids as they rush from one activity to the next. It's a rare thing to find a family that actually sits down for 45 minutes with the TV off and has a meal together. But fathers have a God-given mandate to pass on their faith and values and to put into words what's in their hearts."
Family therapist Glen Ryswyk says articulating emotions and personal feelings can be uncomfortable for some men, especially those who never heard such expressions from their fathers. Yet he says it's crucial to building a healthy relationship.
"It is important for a father to be able to verbalize love, acceptance, care, concern and provision for a child, as well as discipline and direction," says Ryswyk, an Assemblies of God chaplain and clinical director of the Christian Family Counseling Center in Lawton, Oklahoma. "Many dads are so afraid they're not going to be able to do it right that they really withdraw from the task."
Tommy Faulk Sr., pastor of First Assembly of God in Youngsville, Louisiana, says he has encountered many fathers who are uneasy about talking openly with their kids.
"It's very much rooted in fear of rejection," Faulk says. "We become vulnerable when we share our feelings and emotions. Men are more action-oriented, but we can't use that as an excuse to remain silent with our families. A hug can mean a lot, but we need to speak as well. The more we do it, the better we'll become at it."
|Tommy Faulk Sr. (holding grandson Andrew Fault) tries to keep lines of communication open with (from left) son Tommy Jr., father C.J. Faulk and daughter Lehia Faulk Armstrong.|
Faulk says parental communication isn't always easy, even in the best relationships.
"When kids are younger they look to you with great admiration," Faulk says. "During some middle years they act like you don't know anything. It's so important not to give up on talking to them and letting them know how much you care. They're listening, even when you think they are not."
There is evidence parents' words do not fall on deaf ears. A study by The Partnership at Drugfree.org (formerly Partnership for a Drug-Free America) revealed that teens who learn about the dangers of drugs from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use these substances. Multiple studies have shown similar positive correlations between parental communication and teens abstaining from alcohol.
Through honest communication, parents have the opportunity not only to influence their kids but also to establish meaningful bonds that last into adulthood.
"There's not a single day that goes by where I don't have a conversation with my dad," says Faulk's 31-year-old son, Tommy Jr., who serves as media director at the church. "Some days it's small talk; other days it may be ministry matters. Then there are days where important life issues are talked about. But no matter the conversational content, I'm grateful to have his voice in my life. I know so many who have no relationship with their fathers, and it's heartbreaking."
David Walters, a corporate sales director, wanted to be sure his kids knew where he stood on a variety of topics. When they were teens, Walters wrote a personal book to his children and gave it to them for Christmas. It addressed everything from driving and dating to religion and finances.
"Between Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and MTV, there's so much information going into kids," Walters says. "Most of it is not going to be Bible-based. Kids need more than reality TV. They need a father's input."
Walters launched an Internet site to help other parents create books for their children. He says he has had more response from fathers than mothers.
"I get a sense that dads are looking for ways to communicate with their kids," Walters says. "In general, I think dads have a tougher time communicating their emotions and feelings. Having serious talks can be hard. Putting it down on paper makes it easier for some people."
While there are many creative ways to get the conversation flowing, it seems the power of a father's voice should not be underestimated.
"Even in the midst of our technology-rich - and almost dependent - society, face-to-face, intentional, proactive communication is key," says Mark Entzminger, senior director for Assemblies of God Children's Ministries and father of two boys. "If you daily listen and respond to the good reports and bad reports, the questions and the crazy ideas presented by your kids, you have a foundation for a relationship that will last a lifetime."
Author: Christina Quick, Pentecostal Evangel