Remember the song “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun? I loved that movie, and the Kenny Loggins song is a must for any retro fan. In the movie, the song was the perfect soundtrack for those flying scenes, as the pilots pushed their aircraft to the limits and beyond—into the danger zone, where the engines could stall or worse. It was a perilous place to be.
Serious mountain climbers know about the “death zone.” On Mount Everest and some of the other highest peaks in the world, once a climber reaches about 26,000 feet, the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life. Many climbers have died because they weren’t properly prepared or didn’t have enough oxygen with them.
Most of us will probably never climb into a fighter jet cockpit or attempt to summit the world’s tallest mountain, but there is another danger zone where we dads often find ourselves with our families: the comfort zone. I like being in the comfort zone. It’s free of stress and the craziness of life that is so often around me at home. Some might call this my “happy place.” There are times that we need an oasis where we can drown out life around us and find peace and serenity. But if we want what’s best for our families, the comfort zone is a place we are never meant to stay for very long.
When I first got married, I married not only my wife but also her family, which included two boys in their mid to late teens. For a while I had a hard time building a relationship with them. I’d get home from work in the evening and they’d usually be in the living room, watching a television show I didn’t get or couldn’t care less about. It was much easier for me to get my dinner and retreat into the more comfortable sanctuary of my bedroom. I could read a book or watch TV and I didn’t have to engage with them unless it was on my terms.
At the time, I thought: What was the point? I couldn’t relate to them and they certainly couldn’t relate to me, at least on the surface. Clearly, I was missing the point. I was off in my comfort zone, and I wasn’t going to be intentional about being a dad to them.
My wife LeeAnn was so patient with me, and every now and then she would enter my serene hideaway and remind me that I didn’t marry just her, but also two boys she loved deeply. If I wanted to develop a better relationship with them, I had to leave the Comfort Zone. I had to engage them.
That word “engage” has transformed who I am as a father. This didn’t happen overnight, and there were starts and stops as I kept fighting off selfishness and the desire to go back to the Comfort Zone. But then one day my father-in-law gave me advice on how to be intentional as a dad. He said that if I wanted to become closer to the children, I had to drop the labels—quit thinking of them as my stepsons and foster daughters but rather as my sons and daughters. I had to stop labeling myself as a step dad and foster dad, and just be dad. He said the labels that we use often create distance and give those of us that are not biological dads an excuse to keep that separation.
I had to stop labeling myself as a step dad and foster dad, and just be dad.
He was right. While an attorney might say that, from a legal perspective, step and foster kids are the correct wording, I have grown past that and see them as my children, for as long as God allows them in my life. Several months ago, we decided after 5 years of fostering, to take a break. It was good for our marriage, and last year, I discovered a whole new zone: The Grandparent Zone. Our youngest son and his wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Now I get to learn to just be grand-dad!
Being an engaged dad means being hands-on and enthusiastically involved in your children’s lives. It’s getting to know them on their level and being consistent in letting them know you are there. It also means that as they get older you are coaching them and modeling how to live by your actions and how you live. An example of this is how they see you handle conflict or adversity and perhaps more important, how you treat your spouse or their mother. Believe me, your young ones are watching.
You can’t do these things by being in your comfort zone. That sends a whole other message that says “Leave me alone,” or “You’re not worth my time.”
That sounds cruel, doesn’t it? Yet our country is full of disengaged fathers. I see it in the neighborhood we live in, and as a foster dad, I see it in the families of the girls we work with. Many dads are physically absent, others are present but emotionally distant, and some have hurt their kids so much that they aren’t allowed to be around and in their life.
Engaged fathers and father figures really do make a difference. Since I have left my Comfort Zone as a dad, my relationships with both of my stepsons are vastly improved. Things are far from easy, but they can see that I’m more interested in them and many more activities and conversations have had positive results.
Do your relationships with your children need a transformation? Be an intentional, hands-on dad. You will make mistakes here and there, but you will also learn from them. Embrace your role as a father and make a difference in the lives of other kids. Close up shop on the Comfort Zone.
Even now, I have days when the comfort zone is awfully tempting. But I rely on my faith, my patient and loving wife, and other dads who encourage me.
Just Get Out of the Comfort Zone. Just Be DAD.
***Michael French is a father in Kansas City, a Christian Relationship expert at Armstrong Family Counseling, and was a top 5 finalist in the National Center for Fathering 2014 Kansas City Father of the Year Contest. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor & has been blogging about his experiences at his website Dads Unite. Mike has been married to LeeAnn for 10 years and has two grown stepsons and one adopted daughters.