Are you a Father or a Dad? (A Father’s Day Tribute)

You don’t get to practice being a parent. You aren’t one. Then, one day you are one. In some ways then parenting is one big experiment trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work. And, just when you think you might have figured it out, here comes another child–this one totally different than the last. Back to square one. Well, sort of.


On this Father’s Day, I’d like to wish a Happy Father’s Day to my dad, Harold Arnold, Sr. and all the other men out there who are actively fathering a child. One of the encouraging trends in American culture over the last few years is seeing successful fatherhood initiatives all over the country.


Seeing improvements in national statistics and observing successful fatherhood initiatives is very encouraging for us as a country. But, for most of us it isn’t about what is happening on a national or a regional level. No. It’s about me and my father. It’s about me and my children.


I am living the parenting experiment as both father of two and a son.  I know my children have been like proverbial “guinea pigs” to my trial and error parenting. More than once in my nearly twenty-three years as a father, I’ve had to admit I screwed up. I blamed them unfairly. I disciplined too harshly. I judged them too quickly. I doubted their truthfulness. I could go on. But, you get the point. In my efforts to raise my kids to the best of my ability, I continually goof as a father.


My father has his own goof ups as well. And, I could harbor anger about that.


I could hold against him his refusal to allow me to attend parties in my teen years—even my senior prom. I could be angry with him for missing some important events in my youth and adult life like big ball games, public speaking contests, and some graduations for graduate degrees. I could be frustrated with my disagreements about the way he manages his resources. In other words, I could focus on what my father is not—his shortcomings.


That’s what so many people do. And, it eats at them, often creating a life-long wedge between them and their father.


In the 1950’s there was a popular television show “Father Knows Best”, starring Robert Young. The show was hugely successful by every measure, earning six Emmy awards and years of re-runs. Robert Young’s character, Jim Anderson, portrayed the idyllic father. That’s what everyone wants their father to be. Why couldn’t my father be the one that knows best?


Jim Anderson was a man above reproach. He was well respected by all. He always ultimately made the right decision for the family. He was always there when he needed to be—delicately balancing work, community, and family. In fact, some say the show’s success hinged on the fact that Jim Anderson wasn’t really like a “Father” at all – he was more like a “Dad”.


This raises some interesting questions. What is the difference between a father and a dad? Are they synonymous? Is one more important than the other? Which one is my father? Which one am I?


As I ponder this question, I think about the biblical reference to God as “Abba Father”.  The word “Abba” is an Aramaic word most closely translated as “Daddy.” It was a common term that young children would use to address their fathers. It signifies the close, intimate relationship of a father to his child.


For me, this dimension of God as Abba Father illuminates the real difference between a father and a dad. It is about intimacy.

It only takes a few minutes and one sperm to become a father. But, it takes a life-time to be a dad.

  • A father gives resources to his family. A dad gives himself to his family.
  • A father will tell his children what to do. A dad will show them how to do it
  • A father guards his family’s physical well-being. A dad also defends them emotionally and spiritually
  • A father pushes to the limit. A dad pushes beyond the limit.


Being a dad is about nurturing your children from birth to death—often fighting through major barriers (e.g., custody battles, crazed schedules, geographic distance) to do so. Why? A dad wants to know and be known intimately with his children. A dad understands that the way his children see him influences their ability to see God as Abba Father and ultimately live out their true calling and destiny.


When I contrast being a father or a dad, I’m able to see my experience with my own father from a place of human frailty and understand the role of grace. Ironically, I’m able to see the strength of weakness.


My father is a great dad—not in comparison to a fictitious television character that seems to always know best. But, when compared to God’s edict to be intimate with his children—my father excels because I choose to remember his strengths rather than his shortcomings.


I can remember the time that we played football and the joy I felt when I tackled him for the first time. I can smile at the way that he laughs so hard that everyone around him starts laughing too. I can admire his commitment to my mom for more than fifty years despite the profound differences and challenges their marriage has faced. I can be proud of his ability to work a full-time blue collar job while also pastoring a church for practically my entire life. I can feel how proud he is of me and my siblings. He is my dad—and he’s comfortable with his imperfections. And, that really helps me be comfortable with mine.


My ability to see his strengths allows me to clearly see five key lessons that I have learned by observing him—lessons that I have to strive to convey to my own children. In fact, I believe every dad should teach his children these five lessons.


5 Lessons Every Dad should Teach His Children

  • Believe in something bigger than yourself
  • Demonstrate a strong work ethic – find a way
  • Be Comfortable in Your own skin
  • See the good in others
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously


All of us men who have fathered children have a decision to make. Do you want to be a father or a dad?

It’s an important question that in many ways will influence the lives of your children for years to come. Choose to be a dad.


For those of you who have experienced disappointments with your father, remember that parenting and fatherhood is an experiment fraught with trial and error. Your father did many things wrong. But, most of them have done many things right as well. Can you forgive them and release that weight from your own spirit? If they want to be a part of your life, find ways to let them in. It can be healing for you and him.


In retrospect, I’m glad that my father didn’t always know best because it shows me that being a dad is about persistence not perfection. This is why I love him. It is my love for him that opens my heart to truly experiencing God as Abba Father.


Happy Father’s Day, Dad.