My father spent a lot of time in silence. As a farmer he worked many long days alone in his International tractor cab, plowing, sowing, and reaping in the fields.

Before I was old enough to start school, I spent many hours with him there. Our family couldn’t afford childcare and so my dad was in charge of babysitting while mom went to work as a receptionist at a local factory. 

I sat for hours each day sandwiched between the tractor seat and the window of the cab. Dad and I would go up and down the field, in silence, tilling the rich Canadian soil. He drove. I sat and watched – and complained. We’d go for hours until inevitably a plow blade would strike a rock and break, bringing forth a blue stream of curse words from his mouth.

Out he’d get, and I would follow, slowly but surely stepping down the rickety old steps that separated little old me from the ground eight feet below. I’d stand there, relatively useless, as my father would hammer, ratchet, and wrench his way to a fixed plow, and then we’d be off again, in silence.

Some days we’d drive the old yellow tractor and loader. I forget the exact model, but it had no cab. We’d ride out into the hay field and collect a big round bale to be brought back for the cattle’s bedding in the barn.

This is where I learned to hang on for dear life, literally. The only thing that separated me from slipping between the tractor’s seat and falling off the back of the tractor, and thus under the 600-pound wheels, was the strength of my wee little four-year old arms. Not a summer would go by that you didn’t hear a radio report of some similar child getting crushed under a tractor tire. There but for the grace of God, go I, you might say.

I certainly didn’t learn a lot about safety from my old man.

In his world, “Keep Out” signs meant, “Come on in and explore”. Speed limits and seatbelt rules did not apply to him and his old trucks. Keep a loaded rifle in the living room for shooting groundhogs out the patio doors? Sounded good to him. Worked, too.

My father, like all fathers, taught a lot of skills. I eventually learned how to drive the same tractors, shoot the same guns, and drive too fast.

But those are tactics, not strategies for life.

No doubt your father taught you a laundry list of skills over the years, and most of them would be much different than mine. Perhaps your father taught you how to tie a tie, shine your shoes, dance a waltz, or play the piano. While I was learning how to assist a difficult calf’s birth by attaching chains to its hooves and pulling it out, slowly, inch-by-agonizing-inch with the old tractor and loader, maybe your dad was teaching you how to play chess or cook a quiche.

It doesn’t matter, for those are skills, not principles.

The skills our father’s taught us required the spoken word.

The principles our father’s instilled in us were born in silence.

My father taught me to buck convention, to work hard, and to realize that the most important lessons in life are not learned in a classroom. Each year he’d take me out of school and show me “some real learnin’, Craiggy”. We’d visit the stockyards, the slaughterhouse, other family farms, countless cornfields, and equipment companies full of the latest tractors he could never afford.

We rode in silence, just as we did in his tractors all those years ago. His big lessons didn’t require words. That’s a father’s gift – the ability to teach what really matters simply by showing his son – or daughter – the way.

Sure my Dad taught me some essential self-defense skills on Saturday afternoons, like Baron Von Rashcke’s “Claw” move, or my father’s own patented “Whisker Rub”. However, the biggest lesson he would teach me in those golden weekend hours was delivered in silence, as I simply appreciated his presence while he took a well-earned nap on the couch.

In her research, Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker has studied what a father needs to do. The big lessons he needs to teach are showing a son how to embrace responsibility, the importance of consistently being there for his family, teaching you how to treat women (and others), and how to set limits.

“Once you are a father, you are a father for life,” Dr. Hartwell-Walker writes. Her findings show:

  • Kids need predictability. They need care. They need a loving relationship with their father and whatever financial support you can provide. None of these things should depend on whether you’ve had a disagreement or fight with their mom. None of these things should ever be withheld as a way to get even with her.
  • Kids need their father to be in a respectful and appreciative relationship with their mother. Being a good dad is certainly possible both inside and outside of marriage. Kids grow best when their parents treat each other with respect and appreciation. The kids then don’t feel torn between the two people they love.
  • Kids need to have fathers who know both how to set reasonable, firm limits and how to relax and have a good time. Fathers must give the kids the stability that comes with clear limits and the good memories that come with play.
  • Kids need their father to be a role model of adult manhood. Boys and girls need their father to show them what it means to be adult and male. Kids are observing their parents every minute. They notice how you treat others, how you manage stress and frustrations, how you fulfill your obligations, and whether you carry yourself with dignity. Consciously or not, the boys will become like their father. The girls will look for a man very much like him. Give them an idea of manhood (and relationships) you can be proud of.

These are the lifelong strategies on which a father must focus. It’s fine and dandy to teach your son how to do karate, but what matters more is teaching him how and when to stand up for himself on principle. It’s not the skills, it’s the strategies. It’s not the tactics, it’s the principles.

You could be a terrible shot, a horrible basketball player, a dance floor clutz, or a shoe-tying failure, but what matters is not what the skills you speak of, but the life lessons you leave in silence. It’s the principles of parenthood that you pass along without speaking through every action that you take every day.

Understand that the lessons you teach your son – or daughter – often cannot be put in words nor written down in a tidy little instruction booklet with steps one through five.

Life doesn’t work that way. Parenting isn’t about creating a written owner’s manual for being a good person with exact rules for what to do in any given circumstance.

Instead, it’s a big ugly mess that can only be mastered by having upstanding, strong principles that cannot be broken.

Those lessons, delivered strongly in the silence of your actions, without the sound of instructions, are what will stick with your child forever.

Most importantly, you can only teach these principles by being there.

“In study after study,” Dr. Hartwell-Walker writes, “kids consistently say they would like to have more time with their dads. Regardless of whether a dad shares a home with the children and their mother, the kids need dad time. Research has shown that even infants know and respond to their fathers differently than they do to their mothers. The bond a father makes with a baby sets the foundation for a lifetime. Working together on a chore or simply hanging out can be as meaningful as attending events or having adventures. Kids want to know their fathers. Just as important, they want their fathers to know them.”

Forget the new-age baloney that men no longer have value in society or that we have entered a period known as the “end of men”.

That’s ridiculous. Our society, our communities, our children need good men today more than ever before.

“Kids whose parents let them know that they are worth their parents’ time and attention are kids who grow up healthy and strong. Boys and girls who grow up with attention and approval from their dads as well as their moms tend to be more successful in life,” says Dr. Hartwell-Walker.

“It doesn’t matter what job a dad has or how much money a dad makes, as long as he is doing his best. It doesn’t seem to matter what his interests and skills are, as long as he shares them with his children. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a father is very physically affectionate or loves more quietly as long as the kids know that he most certainly cares about them. What matters is for fathers to be committed to their children and involved with them over time. When fathers take that responsibility seriously, their children are more likely to do well and the fathers have few regrets.”

Ol’ Howie Ballantyne was never the perfect husband, he was not the perfect father, but he got one thing right.

He was there.

Do the same for your kids.

That’s the most important lesson my dad taught me.

And he didn’t have to say a word to do it.

We’d love to hear what you learned from your old man.

Please share with us here.

[Ed Note: Craig Ballantyne is the editor of Early to Rise (Join him on Facebook here) and the author of Financial Independence Monthly, a complete blueprint to helping you take control of your financial future with research of proven methods in your career, in your business and in your personal life. He has created a unique system to show gratitude and appreciation to stay on track for these goals each and every day. Click here to follow the exact 5-minute system you can use to improve your life.]

Craig Ballantyne

Craig Ballantyne is the author of The Perfect Day Formula: How to Own the Day and Control Your Life. Craig has been a contributor to Men's Health magazine for over 17 years. Today he teaches his gift high-performing entrepreneurs how to squeeze more out of their days, increase their income, and make more quality time for their families in his Perfect Life Workshop and Work-Life Mastery programs. Craig used his own advice to overcome crippling anxiety attacks in 2006, and he'll teach you his 5 Pillars of Success so you can increase your income, decrease your work time, and live the life of your dreams. Learn more about Craig at craigballantyne.com