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The Modern Dad’s Dilemma: How to Be Known by Your Children
When I start talking about our emotional lives as dads — using words like needs, intimacy, vulnerability and closeness — to an auditorium filled with dads, a slight tension always enters the room. It’s what I call the group hug moment: the unspoken fear that all this talk about emotions and relationships will inevitably lead to my asking the whole group to join me in one big embrace. Yet when I ask that same group to describe the kind of relationship they want with their children, every dad in that auditorium will say without hesitation that, above all, he wants to feel emotionally close and connected with his children.
While I find plenty of humor in the group hug moment, it captures the central paradox and challenge of modern fatherhood and manhood: These so-called feminine or touchy-feely qualities we were raised to mock, disown and devalue in ourselves and other males — emotional expression, vulnerability, sensitivity — are the very qualities (along with courage, strength and other qualities associated with masculinity) we most want and need to build and sustain healthy, emotionally connected relationships as dads, husbands/partners and friends.
As modern dads we can and must resolve this confusing contradiction and show our sons and daughters that emotional connection and intimacy are positive, vital aspects of any male’s life.
The research is clear: A close, emotionally connected dad-child relationship is a form of risk prevention and source of health and happiness for both child and father. Renowned researcher John Gottman found that children with emotionally available dads do better in school, have better peer relationships, and relate better with teachers than children with more emotionally distant dads. Children with dads who are critical or dismissing of emotions are more likely to do poorly in school, fight more with friends and suffer poor health. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that the single most protective factor for reducing behavioral risks, such as drug and alcohol use, early sexual activity, smoking and depression, is children’s connectedness to their parents; fathers were noted as being of particular importance.
The power of your story
Being known means letting down the walls and sharing your story. It means having the courage to show your flaws, fears and joys. This is not to say that one should overburden a child with inappropriate revelations; rather, it’s about giving your child the gift of knowing who you are and what you feel on a regular basis.
As I mentioned in the introduction, when I visit schools and lead a student workshop, I ask kids to anonymously write down two questions they would like to ask their dad but never have. I collect the questions and periodically tally the responses to determine the most popular ones. They turn out to be: “What was your relationship like with your dad?” and “What were you like as a kid?” These and all the other questions children have for their fathers point to what I call the elephant in the living room of child development: the missing stories of men’s lives, particularly men’s emotional lives. A child wants and needs her father’s stories so that she can better understand who she is and where she comes from. Stories are gifts that every child deserves.
Children want real stories about who you were (and are) as a person, not just as their dad. War stories can be fun, but here I’m talking about letting your kids into your experiences with winning and losing, being embarrassed and feeling anxious, overcoming challenges and giving up. But what stories are appropriate to share with a child? The short answer is, trust your gut. If your gut says telling a story about your father’s drinking will be upsetting, don’t tell it. If, however, you have a history of your gut getting you into trouble, then check it out with a trusted friend or partner. While there are no hard-and-fast rules for storytelling, here are a few guidelines:
- Let your stories emerge naturally and in context; don’t overwhelm your child with your entire life story on a Saturday afternoon. Your daughter loses a game: “Did I ever tell you about what my dad used to do when I would lose?”
- Don’t just be a reactive storyteller; take the lead. “When I was in fifth grade, I was concerned about what other people thought of me. Do you ever feel that way?”
- Share stories about your present, not just your past. “Sometimes I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. I was in this meeting the other day ... ”
- Include feelings in your stories, not just facts. Children need to know that you get scared, worried, joyful, excited and so on. By labeling your feelings, you help children understand their own.
- Be mindful of how your stories may be used against you. If you decide to tell your teenage son about past alcohol or drug use, I suggest you prepare a response in case he uses that story to justify his own use.
- When telling stories about your father, keep in mind that your children have a relationship with their grandfather. If your child has a more positive relationship with your dad than you did, do not divide your child’s loyalties. Talk more about the things you are trying to do differently. If your father was abusive, seek professional advice before sharing such stories. Remind yourself that stories are the lifeblood connecting generations.
Excerpted from the book The Modern Dad's Dilemma: How to Stay Connected with Your Kids in a Rapidly Changing World ©2010 by John Badalament. Printed with permission from New World Library.