For the millions of kids growing up without their dads, Father’s Day can be extremely difficult. While no one can replace dad, honoring grandfathers, uncles and other father figures can help bring meaning to the day and make it less painful. Keep reading to learn more.
How to Make Father’s Day Meaningful to Kids Growing Up Without Dad
With Father’s Day coming up, all eyes are on dad and how to make his day special. While that’s wonderful and as it should be for families where dad is raising kids alongside mom, what about the kids that aren’t growing up with him? It’s a more common situation than you may think. The last U.S. Census found that 33% (one-third) of US kids grow up without their biological dads. That’s millions of children who view Father’s Day as a source of pain rather than a day of celebration.
I know my kids are lucky. They’re growing up in a two-parent household with both a loving mom and dad. Father’s Day for them really is all about dad. I think about kids who don’t have that, though. For them, Father’s Day isn’t a day of celebration but rather a painful reminder that they’ll never go to a daddy/daughter dance or play catch in the yard with dad.
Since I did grow up with my father, I asked a friend to share her experiences without one. Her dad was alive, but rarely part of her life. She explained how, yes, choosing a Father’s Day card was a painful experience. Passing over all of the “You were always there for me,” cards to find one with a generic “Happy Father’s Day” message often brought tears to her eyes.
However, what made the day a lot easier on her was knowing that while she may have had a totally absent dad, she still had a wonderful male role model in her grandfather. “I focused all of my energy on him on that day,” she says. “I got the “dad” card out of the way and poured my heart into letting my grandpa know how much he meant to me.”
How Can Grandfathers & Uncles Make Father’s Day Meaningful?
If you think about what makes a good father, then consider all of the positive men in your child’s life (or your own), I bet you’ll see a lot of overlap. My friend says, “When I was little, I saw a movie about dads going crazy looking for a popular holiday toy. I was sad because I didn’t have a dad who would do that for me. Such a silly small thing, but it was just another reminder. Then I realized, I did! My grandfather scoured the ends of the earth just to find me a Cabbage Patch Doll to cheer me up when I was sick.”
All of the friends that I talked to about growing up without a father have similar stories. A grandpa who came to every baseball game, an uncle who stood in at a father/daughter dance, or even an older brother who walked them down the aisle at their wedding. All very powerful male role models who stepped up and lived up to and even exceeded what we imagine a good father to be.
Nothing can change the fact that dad isn’t part of a day designed entirely to honor him. Your kids will still feel that sting, especially if they lost their father through a tragedy. Reframing the day as a holiday to honor all of the men who make a difference in a child’s life, though, can help soothe that pain.
In a Psychology Today post about surviving Father’s Day without dad, Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D. recommends, among other things, reaching out to people who stood in. “This may involve reaching out to men who have served as impactful mentors, friends, and dads. And, it may involve honoring and celebrating the men who are fathering other people we care deeply about.” Cohan writes.
Don’t forget about stepdads. They deserve celebration, too.
There’s a really wonderful quote about stepparents that says, “A stepparent is so much more than just a parent: they made the choice to love when they didn’t have to.” I truly feel for brand-new stepdads on Father’s Day. It has to be tough to come into a family where a child has lost their biological father and navigate such a special day. Let me share a quick story with you to explain why.
I have a friend named Joy (not her real name). Joy lost her husband Kyle when their daughter El was 6. When El was 8, Joy remarried a really great guy, Joe, that got along wonderfully with El. When Father’s Day rolled around, though, Dee found El crying in her room and asked what was wrong. El told her, in her own words, that she felt like celebrating Father’s Day with Joe was a betrayal to her real father. After much discussion, they found a great way to honor both of El’s dads. Let’s discuss.
How to celebrate stepdads while still honoring dad
First and foremost, Joy reminded El that no one would ever take her dad’s place. Ever. Then, they decided to keep the traditions that El had with her dad but also create new ones with Joe. When Kyle was still alive, he and El always ate pancakes together for Father’s Day breakfast. After he passed away, Joy continued the tradition as a way to honor Kyle. She and El would eat them together while sharing memories of Kyle.
El was really worried that Joy would either stop the tradition entirely now that Joe was in the picture or worse, that she’d make those pancakes for Joe instead. As much as El loved Joe, she couldn’t bear the thought of him eating her dad’s special breakfast.
Joy came up with an idea that El really liked- a way to keep old traditions and create new ones without leaving anyone out. First, they’d have their pancake breakfast, just the two of them. They would take their time and share memories, just like before. Then, they started a new tradition with Joe. They went on a family hike (Joe really loved hiking and wanted to share that El).
Long story short, the point is to come up with something brand-new that your kids can do with their stepdads while still keeping the things that they did with their biological dad. Whatever you do, don’t force them to invite their “new” dad into the old tradition. Notice how Joy didn’t say, “Well, we can still have those pancakes and talk about dad, but it’s not nice to leave Joe out, so we’ll all eat breakfast together.”
At some point, your kids may feel like it’s okay to include their stepdad in this special old tradition. Or they may not. They may have the closest relationship in the world with him yet still need that time to reflect on and remember their biological father, and that’s totally okay.
Being a good father figure isn’t just about biology or last names
Another quote that I love says, “Family isn’t defined only by last names or by blood; it’s defined by commitment and by love.” Any man who loves your child deserves to be honored on Father’s Day. So, if your kids don’t have a stepdad, grandfather, or even an uncle to honor, consider the other important men in their lives.
You can even rename the holiday if that makes it easier on your kids. Louis Steptoe of Washington DC told USA Today that he celebrates “Father Figure Day.” Steptoe chooses to honor his “always present” godfather on that day.
If your kids are lucky enough to grow up with dad in their life, honoring the other men who make such a major positive impact is still a wonderful way to bring extra meaning to Father’s Day. After all, many grandfathers and uncles play enormous roles in our children’s lives. For kids without dad, though, it can completely turn around a painful day and give them a reason to celebrate.