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  • No matter how old he is, devoting time to get to know your father on a deeper level is the best gift you could offer to him and to yourself. Tweet This
  • Many fathers and their adult children wish they had a more meaningful, open relationship with one another. Sadly, this longing sometimes lingers on even when dad is no longer alive. Tweet This
Category: Fathers, Parents

As Father’s Day approaches, many of us might be wondering what to buy for dad. Especially during this pandemic when we might not be able to be with dad in person, what should we send as a gift?    

To answer that question, let’s consider three findings from my decades of research on father-daughter relationships.  

First, many fathers and their adult children wish they had a more meaningful, open, and relaxed relationship with one another. Sadly, this longing sometimes lingers on even when dad is no longer alive.

Second, most of us do not know our fathers nearly as well as we know our mothers. This does not mean we love dad any less than we love mom. But it does mean we don’t know as much about him at a deep or personal level. This is even truer for the 50% of children who do not spend the first 18 years of their lives living in the same home with their fathers.

Third, fathers too often feel they are nothing more than mom’s sidekick or the family banking machine. Mom is in the engine room driving the family train, while dad is back there somewhere in the caboose. 

Unfortunately, there is evidence that Dad might be right about his second-class status. From 1910 through the 1930’s, Sonora Dodd, whose father was a Civil War veteran who raised his six children on his own, tried to create a holiday in honor of fathers. But it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed it a national holiday—more than half a century after President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1914. As for the present, in 2018, Americans spent only $15.5 billion on Father’s Day gifts, which included taking him out for a meal or buying him a card, compared to $23.6 billion on Mother’s Day gifts

With this history and research in mind, here are my suggestions for unique and lasting Father’s Day gifts in 2020:    

1. Give your dad a handwritten letter instead of buying him a commercial Father’s Day card. In your own handwriting (no typing), tell your dad what he has given you over the years that you appreciate. Be specific. Exactly what did he do to enrich your life? Describe in detail the things he said or did that meant the most to you—especially small things he might not have realized made an impact. Put aside any negative stereotypes and unfounded myths you might have about fathers: for example, that men lack the sensitivity to appreciate such personal gestures of love and affection.      

As you write your letter, keep in mind that, according to decades of research on parenting, fathers are more likely than mothers to “prepare the child for the road” instead of “prepare the road for the child.” That is, dads are less likely to be overprotective, helicopter parents who are always making the “road” easier for children in ways that undermine self-reliance, resilience, maturity, and initiative. So, let your dad know what he did that prepared you for your road, even though you probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. As Mark Twain once said, “My father was an amazing man. The older I got, the smarter he got.”       

But here’s the catch: In your letter, do not mention anything about the financial provisions he made for you, such as helping to pay for your college education, buying you a car, funding an expensive wedding, or helping pay off your credit card debts. Instead, tell him about those times he helped you become more self-confident, recover from a heartbreaking failure, or overcome a fear, or made you feel loved and lovable at a time you felt low and lost. Now, hand him or mail your handwritten letter. No texts. No emails.        

2. Tell your father you want to set aside time at least once a month to talk to him alone—just the two of you, no other family members involved. If you can’t talk every month in person, use skype, zoom, facetime, or just have a plain old fashioned phone conversation. The key is that nobody else is involved and that you use the time to talk about meaningful, personal things. One of the best gifts you can give him is having conversations where you get to know him—not a superficial exercise filled with the same old superficial chit-chat. 

If you don’t know how to get these conversations started, there are hundreds of personal questions in my newest book. For example: How and why have his views on love, friendship, religion, fatherhood, aging, and death changed over the years? What are some of his greatest regrets, biggest mistakes, and most painful and joyful parts of his childhood and early adult life? What does he wish he had known earlier in his life that he knows now?  

Another easy way to jumpstart these conversations is to ask your dad to give you 10 pictures that have special meaning to him—pictures from his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Be sure to tell him how important it is to you that he chooses the pictures instead of letting someone else choose the pictures for him. Then, use these pictures as starting points for meaningful, personal conversations about his life.  

If these gift ideas make you feel uncomfortable, that’s all the more reason to use these opportunities to start deep conversations with your father. No matter how old he is, devoting time to get to know your father on a deeper level is the best gift you could offer to him and to yourself. And if you do not get along well with your dad, these gift ideas could possibly lead to a greater understanding between you and more peace of mind.   

If your father seems reluctant to accept one of these gifts, don’t be disheartened. He might feel emotionally overwhelmed by such affectionate and personal gestures. He might react by joking around or acting disinterested. Give him time to “unwrap” this. He might need a few weeks to keep lifting the lid and warily peaking inside that metaphorical gift box before he’s ready to fully open it.  Then again, you might be taken aback by how enthusiastically your father embraces and cherishes the gift of you wanting to really get to know him                    

Dr. Linda Nielsen is a Professor of Education at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, NC. She is the author of an adolescent psychology textbook and five books on father-daughter relationships. Her next book, Improving father-daughter relationships: A guide for women & their dads, will be released near Father’s Day 2020.