A dad’s primary, underlying job is to validate every one of his children.
validate \ ‘val uh date \ verb:
To confirm, approve of, give official sanction to, or establish as legitimate.
Dads, in parenting terms, that validation means letting your preschooler know over and over and over, through words and actions:
- “Hey, you exist and you matter to me.”
- “You’re good enough!”
- “You belong in this family.”
- “I love you.”
- “You’re an okay kid!”
Children get their earliest, most lasting impressions about who they are from what’s reflected back to them by their parents. It’s called the looking-glass-self principle. These impressions become those records that collect in the jukebox of your child’s brain.
A dad’s biggest job is to affirm that his child’s existence— with or without any performance—is acceptable and good enough. If you’re a father, recognize that your toddler or preschooler is worthy of being alive. You know that, but she needs to hear it, see it, and feel it from you again and again.
Value your child’s personhood. Make sure your preschooler knows he or she is good enough for you. Otherwise, when that tree falls in the forest, the silence will be deafening.
Three Low-Pressure Ways to Validate
Since your primary job as a father is to validate, validate, and validate some more, that makes you the main validator. You’re the one who affirms, You belong here. You give a sense of value when your actions say, You’re important, and worth responding to when you enter the room.
“So how do you do that?” Here are three simple ways.
- Physically hold and play with your preschooler.
Healthy physical connectedness is critical during these early years. When my girls were toddlers, there were two activities they (we) absolutely loved and engaged in regularly. The first was “Bucking Bronco.” You guessed it: I was the bronco, down on my hands and knees. Either taking turns or simultaneously, the girls would ride the horse around the living room floor only to be bucked off every so often. This would go on until my knees got sore. Then the bronco would fall over and go to sleep. It was lots and lots of healthy physical interaction, all in the name of playing.
The second activity took place outside. One at a time, I’d take my daughters by the hands and swing them around and around until we got dizzy. We’d gently fall down, and the two of us would roll in the grass, laughing. It gave me enough time to let the dizziness in my head clear before I would take my other daughter and do the same thing. Back and forth. Over and over again.
Don’t expect Mom to do all the physical connecting. Your preschooler needs your physical touch too.
Try the same types of things with your preschooler. Toss him up in the air and catch him (safely, of course). Put him on your shoulders. Carry him on your back. Wrestle with him. If you have an especially physical, rowdy, kinesthetic son, be sure to “win” the wrestling match occasionally—not in a harsh way, but in a playful, safe way.
“Why? Won’t that make him feel bad about himself?” No, it won’t. Your son needs to understand you’re physically stronger and that you’re the “alpha male” in the family. That means you’re physically strong enough to keep him safe from life’s boogie monsters. It also means you’re physically the boss.
- Keep your voice gentle and playful as much as you can.
Even though toddlers understand words, they understand inflection, volume, and tone better. Work to make your normal way of communicating lighthearted, upbeat, and pleasant. When correction is needed, see if you can turn the situation around by keeping that unthreatening tone of voice. Move to a lower tone, slower cadence, and sterner voice only when your lighthearted tone hasn’t garnered the positive response needed. Even in correcting a negative behavior, you can do so in a non-attacking way and still get your point across.
“But, why bother?”
Understand this: A child’s mind is more open to hear and learn when your tone of voice is pleasant. A lighthearted, upbeat tone means I’m safe; a gruff, staccato, or harsh tone sounds and feels like an attack—and translates to Not safe! Not safe!
Using an unpleasant tone will redirect your preschooler’s attention to trying to get away from you rather than hearing what you have to say. Yes, there will be times when you need to use a louder, lower, slower, more powerful tone. That’s to be expected. The rest of the time, however, keep your tone inviting—to help your child’s ears and mind stay open to what he needs to learn from you.
By the way, use this same gentle tone of voice with your child’s mother. It helps your toddler immensely, and it helps Mom a whole bunch too.
- Keep your preschooler safe.
Let your young child venture into this new world, and be sure he knows you’re watching out for his safety. You want him to know for sure that you will protect and rescue him if need be. And be sure you are there to rescue him if or when he needs it (as much as is possible, that is).
Like all toddlers, our daughter Heidi didn’t have the life experience to distinguish normal pain from catastrophic “It’s gonna kill me!” pain. I was assigned to take her to get her eighteen-month DTaP vaccination. When the time came for the injection, I held Heidi close to me. I began rubbing her back and whispering to her, “Daddy’s right here. Relax, Heidi. The shot will hurt for a little bit, but it’ll stop hurting soon. It’s gonna be okay.” Words, by the way, she couldn’t comprehend—yet.
The poke of the needle came and so did the crying. The tears were her inner voice screaming, Not safe! The sky is falling! I’m going to die! Help me! Rescue me!
I kept holding her securely, kept rubbing her back, and increased the volume of my voice a bit: “Daddy’s right here. It’s okay, Heidi. The shot will hurt for a little bit, but it’ll stop hurting soon. It’s gonna be okay.” Same words, same gentle and calm voice.
The nurse used the alcohol swab. The trauma was over—
at least officially.
Heidi kept crying. I repeated, “Daddy’s right here. Relax, Heidi. It’ll stop hurting soon. Shhhhh. You’re okay. I’m right here. You’re okay. Shhhhh.”
As I knew it would, the pain did subside. Heidi calmed down and gave me a little bear hug. The crying stopped. I wiped her tears and gave her a big bear hug, saying, “Good girl. You’re so brave. You’ll be okay. I know you will.”
Finally, Heidi relaxed in my arms.
Validation brings a sense of safety, which is particularly important to preschoolers. It helps your child realize some- body is looking out for her.
“Really? That’s the ‘all-important’ part of my job description as dad?”
Relax and think, validate. That’s your central goal. Ease the pressure on your weary dad shoulders, the ones you’ve worn out through overly high expectations and demands you—or others—wrote into your job description.
Is that all dads do? What about attending as many soccer games and dance recitals as you can, occasionally being the disciplinarian, fixing broken toys, and making sure that playhouse is solidly built? These things are important, and most of them validate your child too. Think of them as items on your job description; they’re just further down the priority list. With the validate portion of your job description covered, the pressure of the endless to-do list is truly lightened.
The excerpt above is from pages 21-28 of The Low-Pressure Guide to Parenting Your Preschooler by Tim Sanford.