Have you ever tried to define something only to come up short of any real definition? Yeah? Me too.

Recently I was asked what it means to be a father. I am a father, but attempting to define it in written words brought frustration and pleas to my dog for help. I did what any good writer worth their salt would do—I sat on the project for three weeks until I was up against a deadline.

When I finally got back to thinking about the question of what it means to be a father, I became distracted by the toys and action figures that adorn my home office. I started to play with Transformers. I sat in my office for a good hour transforming the figures from vehicles to robots. (Yes, I’m a giant kid at heart.) I got so engrossed with what I was doing that I lost track of time and realized I was late picking up my kids from school.

As I was being grilled by two overly inquisitive and way-too-intelligent-for-their-own-good boys as to why I was late, I sheepishly replied, “I got distracted playing with Transformers.” I’m not sure what happened, but all was forgiven with those six words. Suddenly I was inundated with questions about what poses I put them in, which ones I was playing with, and the most important question: “Can we play too, when we get home?”


To be fair, I’ve been collecting Transformers since I was 5 or so. And being the nerd that I am, I’ve passed my love of them on to my two sons. They’ve taken up quite a few of my geeky hobbies, including collecting comic books, playing baseball, and fishing. We’ve bonded over several things, I even kind of dig their obsession with Pokémon, but our love for Transformers is rock solid.

Being a real father … means showing up for your children in the most expected and unexpected ways.

We spent the better part of a school night playing together, laughing, making up ridiculous rules, and trying our best to sound like the various voice actors who portray the characters in the multitude of media representing the franchise.

It’s funny but I never thought a silly collecting hobby would bring my boys and me so close together. Looking back on that day makes me laugh. I know that as both of them get older their needs will change. Their likes will change. And as with anything else in life, they will change.

Being there for those two is priority No. 1 for me. I try, even though I don’t always do the best of jobs, to give my all to my sons. Maybe that’s what it means to be a father. I’m not saying that to be a good dad you have to be a helicopter parent. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Eventually I will have to let go and let my boys know what real disappointment is. But being there for them, even in those times of disappointment, is the greatest gift I can give them as a father.

Showing up Through Love and Integrity

A father isn’t this aloof caricature of quiet sternness that is the stereotype for men. Being a father means being more than an emotionless brute that has been normalized thanks to toxic masculinity.

No, being a real father, whether you are married, divorced, single, or widowed, means showing up for your children in the most expected and unexpected ways. It means saying, “I love you,” no matter how old your children are. It means fostering that love and channeling it into the beautiful diversity of life.

Being a father has been the most singularly difficult and conversely rewarding thing I’ve ever done as an adult. I was terrified to hold my boys when both of them were born. For lack of a better term, I’m an oaf. I’m big and awkward, and sometimes I don’t know my own strength. How was I supposed to care for tiny little humans and not end up hurting them?

Obviously, those feelings were quickly swept away as I was handed my boys for the first time. In those two moments, the only feelings I felt were love, awe, and responsibility. They are older now, but every time I look at them, I still have those same feelings. Those feelings help during the difficult times.

Fostering Trust Is a Form of Love

Fatherhood is a tough job. Sometimes I get to be the cool dad, but there are times when I have to be the disciplinarian, and I hate that job. I used to yell and try to be as scary as possible, but more often lately I try to be levelheaded and talk with them about why they are in trouble. The whole fear-and-intimidation style of leadership is a nonstarter in my house. Mostly because my kids can’t tell when I’m joking and when I’m being serious. But honestly, it just doesn’t work.

I figured out just talking to them and trying to breathe with them makes things better. Do I still raise my voice and yell? Yes. However, it’s not nearly as effective as just discussing what went wrong and how we can do better next time. This technique doesn’t always solve problems, but it does establish trust, and that goes a long way when you’re trying to raise kids.

So how do I define what it means to be a father? I can’t. I just know that I have to do my best to show up for my kids in whatever way they need me. Whether it’s being the goofy, not-so-serious dad who is late to pick up his kids because he’s playing with Transformers and then organizes a giant battle royal of Autobots versus Decepticons after he picks them up or being the more serious dad doing everything in his power to help teach life lessons and ease the anxiety of a stressful situation, I just know that I have to be present.

By being present, I know that whatever obstacles my boys and I face—good or bad—we can face them with courage, integrity, and love.

About the Author

David Penner makes his home in Independence, Missouri, where he grew up, and is a graduate of the University of Central Missouri. He is the managing editor for Unity World Headquarters after serving for several years as senior copy editor and proofreader. Before coming to Unity, he spent five and a half years as editor of the Lexington Clipper-Herald in Lexington, Nebraska.


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