updated 06/07/2011 AT 10:00 AM ET
•originally published 06/08/2011 AT 8:45 AM ET
In an exclusive Father’s Day essay, the President of the United States – and elementary school basketball coach – Barack Obama tells PEOPLE readers how growing up without a dad made him want to be the best parent he could.
I grew up without a father around. I have certain memories of him taking me to my first jazz concert and giving me my first basketball as a Christmas present. But he left when I was two years old.
And even though my sister and I were lucky enough to be raised by a wonderful mother and caring grandparents, I always felt his absence and wondered what it would have been like if he had been a greater presence in my life. I still do. It is perhaps for this reason that fatherhood is so important to me, and why I’ve tried so hard to be there for my own children.
That’s not to say I’ve always been a perfect dad. I haven’t. When Malia and Sasha were younger, work kept me away from home more than it should have. At times, the burden of raising our two daughters has fallen too heavily on Michelle. During the campaign, not a day went by that I didn’t wish I could spend more time with the family I love more than anything else in the world.
But through my own experiences, and my continued efforts to be a better father, I have learned something over the years about what children need most from their parents.
They need our time, measured not only in the number of hours we spend with them each day, but what we do with those hours. I’ve learned that children don’t just need us physically present, but emotionally available – willing to listen and pay attention and participate in their daily lives. Children need structure, which includes learning the values of self-discipline and responsibility.
Malia and Sasha may live in the White House, but Michelle and I still make sure they do their chores, make their beds, finish their schoolwork and take care of the dog. And above all I’ve learned that children need our unconditional love-when they succeed and when they make mistakes; when life is easy and life is hard.
Without a doubt, it is easier to raise children in this kind of caring, attentive atmosphere when both parents are present. Of course, there are plenty of single parents who do a heroic job of raising their kids. I know this because I was fortunate enough to have one-a mother who never allowed my father’s absence to be an excuse for slacking off or not doing my best. But more and more kids are growing up today without their dads. And those young folks are more likely to struggle in school, try drugs, get into trouble and even wind up in jail.
Help Kids Reach Their Potential
There are too many young people out there who aren’t reaching their potential because they don’t have a father figure to guide them. And yet, the truth is, it’s harder to be a father today, even for those dads who are present in their children’s lives.
We are still feeling the aftershocks of a recession that took an especially difficult toll on men. And if you’re struggling to pay the bills, a focus on simply getting by can understandably take precedence over everything else.
We can all do right by our kids.
I have worked hard to get dads help in simple but meaningful ways-by supporting community programs that work with troubled fathers; getting businesses to offer things like discounted movie or sports tickets for fathers to spend more time with their kids; and by making sure dads in the military can keep in contact with their children from overseas.
And every father can encourage his child to turn off the video games and pick up a book; to study hard and stay in school. Every father can pack a healthy lunch for his son, or go outside and play ball with his daughter.
No matter how difficult life gets, we can show our kids through our own example the value in treating each other as we wish to be treated. These things we can all do. Our kids understand that life won’t always be perfect, that times get tough and that even great parents don’t get everything right. More than anything, they just want us to be there-to be present, to care about their lives.
This year, in addition to being President, I took on a second job. I was an assistant coach for Sasha’s basketball team. Every Sunday we would bring Sasha and her teammates together for clinics and drills. It was a lot of fun.
There were even a couple of times when I’d fill in for the regular coaches at the games. I’ll admit that this was a little nerve-racking, and I’m sure this was true for Sasha as well, who may have winced when her dad would voice his displeasure with a particular call made by the referee. But I was so proud, watching her run up and down the court, seeing her learn and improve and gain confidence. And I was hopeful that in the years to come, she would look back on experiences like these as the ones that helped define her as a person – and as a parent herself.
In the end that’s what being a parent is all about: those precious moments, the times we spend with our children that fill us with pride and excitement for their future; the chances we have to set an example or offer a piece of advice or just be there to show that we love them. And that’s a lesson worth remembering not just on Father’s Day, but every other day too.