[This is part 2 of a 2-part article on fatherhood. Part 1 explored the history of fatherhood and the customary models. In Part 2 I explore a new paradigm for fatherhood along with practical, day to day suggestions for becoming the father that you want to be.]
The Old Paradigm of Fatherhood
The traditional paradigm of a father first and foremost consists of being a good provider. This model says that regardless of whether your wife works outside of the home or not, you are the breadwinner. It is your job to bring home the paycheck just as the men of ancient times were supposed to bring home the animal for dinner. Your second responsibility is to protect your wife and children from harm. Protect and provide are the hallmarks of a good husband and father according to this model. This model continued with minor modifications until roughly post-WWII. Fathers worked as hunter-gathers, farmers and tradesmen, or factory workers. They had a limited role in family life.
Beginning in the 1950s, fathers were expected to be more involved in family life. Being a problem solver involved having solutions to family problems and being a handyman around the house. Fathers-husbands were supposed to know how to fix a leaking toilet and figure out how to solve a family crisis (no one tells you where you are supposed to learn how to be expert in this arena, but it is nevertheless part of your job description).
In the 1960s and ’70s fathers were supposed to be somewhat more involved in parenting; they were supposed to be their wife’s assistant giving her some relief when possible and helping her with some things when she asked you for help.
If they occasionally took the kids for a Saturday so she could run some errands or do something personal for herself, they are heroes and expect to be appreciated. After all, they went above and beyond the call of duty. The wife’s job is to be head of the domestic aspects of family life and you are the money earner. She knows all about child rearing, discipline, dietary issues, home decorating, medical and dental issues, education, and everything else that goes with raising children and running a household. Fathers’ job was simply to provide, protect, and give her a hand as needed.
In this model a man’s life is not significantly different as a husband and father than it was when he was living at home with his parents. His job was to go to school, get decent grades, do some chores such as taking out the trash, and don’t get into trouble. Now his job is to bring home a decent paycheck, do some chores, and don’t get into trouble.
As a kid Mom did everything else; with this model his wife does everything else.
And then he wonders why his children have a stronger bond with their mother than with him! lie wonders why he is merely the designated driver on weekends, lie wonders why his wife knows more about the lives of their children than he does.
A New Paradigm
This new paradigm begins with several basic premises:
- A father is as important to the healthy development of a child as is a mother.
- Children need father-love as much as they need mother-love. No matter how much love children receive from their mother, it will not take the place of the love of a father.
- Fathering is as much a state of mind as mothering.
- One has to think like a father, just as one thinks like a mother. And then act as a father.
- Fathering is a full-time job even if you are only spending a few hours a week engaged in paternal activity. It pervades one’s entire consciousness.
- A father is not merely a mother’s assistant. Being a father is an equal position to being a mother and with that position comes equal responsibilities. A father should be able to do everything a mother can do when it comes to parenting. The only difference is that he does it like a father.
- Your children want more of you and your time than they want the things you can buy for them; they will accept the latter as a substitute only because that is what they learn from you. It is always easier to buy your children something than to spend time with them. Fathers, similar to bosses who give quick solutions to subordinates, only encourage children to come to them with problems or requests. Children want your time and attention; and they will do almost anything to get it.
- Fathers are made, not born. One has to invest considerable effort and time in learning how to be an effective father. It demands practice, patience, and perseverance: the three Ps. The more time and effort you put into your role as a father, the better you will become. Spend as much time reading about parenting and male and female development as you spend reading the sports and/or financial pages of the newspaper or your favorite magazine.
- If being a father is as important as you say it is, and if your wife and children are as important as you say they are, act it every day with no excuses.
- Show your children that you love their mother. How you relate to your wife will demonstrate to them how a man should relate to a woman. Your relationship to your child’s mother becomes the model for the husband and wife they will become and for the man your daughter chooses to be her husband. It is not so much the specific behavior as it is the quality of the relationship that you want to model.
Learning to Listen
In this paradigm learning to listen to your child is the most important skill you must develop. Your interactions with your children should locus on the connection between the two of you and not with solving some problem they might present. Problems often are your child’s ticket of admission to spending some time with you. You must teach them that you are there to listen, to understand, to clarify, and to share.
And only when they are unable to solve their own problems will you make suggestions. Your role is to connect with them and through the connection teach them to solve their own problems. It is expedient to solve a problem; but it is also dismissive.
More often than not when a child comes to Daddy with a problem he or she actually wants to connect with Daddy. Often she/he will bring Daddy a problem as a means for that connection. As a father, you must learn to connect directly to the child such that the child feels heard, rather than trying to “fix” the problem. The child will often solve its own problem if given the opportunity.
I have often noticed that when a child comes running into the house crying or angry going to a parent, what he or she really wants is comfort. Once comforted, the child will usually return to its previous activity often with the same playmate that just angered or hurt him or her.
Re-orienting yourself to this new model will take time. So remember the three Ps.
The following are a few suggestions that can be put into practice immediately:
- On your way home from work begin to locus on your other lull time job, that of being a Dad and Husband. Visualize what to expect when you get there. Prepare yourself to engage.
- Remember when you were dating your wile and how excited you were to see her after work? Remember when your child was born and you couldn’t wait to get home play with your new baby? Capture that image and feeling. Your child will grow up and be out of the house before you know it.
- When you arrive home, sit in your car for a few minutes to fully relax. Meditate by focusing on your breathing. You are entering into a new zone, away from work, and you don’t know exactly what is on the other side of the door to greet you. When you go inside remember this time is about them, not about you.
- Greet your wife with warmth, a hug, a squeeze, a kiss. Model loving behavior for your children. It will make them smile and feel secure.
- Your first major job on arriving home is to be fully available for your children. No email, snail mail, voice messages, etc., just locus on your family. Have them help you change your clothes so that you are ready for 20-30 minutes of playtime. They have been waiting all day for you to come home. They need your time and attention.
- Give full participation in their evening rituals.
- Helping with homework, reading to them, chatting, bathing them, feeding them, and getting them ready for bed. No matter how old your child is he or she wants to be tucked in at night. The tucking in process may vary as the child gets older, but it always ends with a kiss and a “sweet dreams.”
- Nurture your spouse. She needs your time as well.
- Make it a habit to take a walk after dinner or have a cup of tea or other ritual. This is a time for debriefing. It is a time for you to listen to her and vice versa.
- Plan a weekly date night with your wife. Romance is important for the marriage, for each of you, and as a model for your children. The date night is a time for connecting.
- Have a date night with your children. If you have more than one child, alternate weeks with them.
- Do something with them that they like doing. Take them out to dinner, bowling, arcade, mall, or whatever appeals to them. Get to know your children directly rather than through your wife’s recitation of their lives.
- Visit your child(ren)’s school regularly. Read to their class, be a monthly teacher’s assistant, drop by for lunch. Be creative and surprise your kid(s). It will create memories for them.
- Make breakfast for your children. Or prepare their lunch with a note inside their lunch box from you.
These are just a few suggestions to jump-start you on your way toward becoming the lather you would have liked to have had, the father you want to be.