Dads & “Manhood” – Finding a Balance

father_daughter_fallSmallBeardThis post was written by Heather Senior, LCSW, who oversees the Parent Support Network at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

What does it mean to be a man today? To their kids, dads are the archetype or role model for what a man can be. That’s why it is important think about how you or the dads in your life embody manhood.

Dads are often labeled as “problem-solvers” and “fixers,” rather than “nurturers” or “givers.” But men don’t always have to play the tough guy. In fact, this could do more harm to your child than good.

Let’s put ourselves in a child’s shoes for a moment: what would it feel like to a kid if the word “dad,” in addition to more traditional labels, was also associated with kindness, nurturing and openness? What if “dad” evoked thoughts of a person who is easy to talk to, emotionally available, communicative, encouraging, gentle and loving? Are those traits less masculine? Or would living those words make one’s child more open to talking about what is going on with him when he’s feeling vulnerable or having a problem?

Here are five tips to help you (or the dad in your family) be more approachable, more human and more available to your child.

  1. Listen, rather than jump to a quick solution. When your child comes to you with a problem, it’s more important to listen and make him feel heard than to try and fix it or give him an immediate solution. Instead of jumping past feelings into action, try sitting together and working through a problem. This process teaches him how to tolerate difficult emotions, which promotes resilience. When you take the time to lend an ear and listen to the whole story, your child becomes more comfortable feeling vulnerable in front of you, which in turn builds trust. The process of listening to and working through distress with your child will also teach him how to access and use these skills when other difficult issues arise down the line.
  1. Solve problems with your child – not for him. It is important to work together with your kid, helping him come up with his own solution, rather than supplying him with one. Your guidance will teach your child how to think through problems. Your child can then take responsibility for the good solution he came up with, which builds self-esteem. Working through problems in this way promotes collaboration and builds confidence that will be applied to future situations.
  1. Step out of your comfort zone. It may be easier for you to show up to a soccer game and cheer for your child than to attend a poetry reading and tell your young poet how great he was. However, it is important to show your child that you support him no matter how he chooses to express himself, and that your support isn’t restricted to what you’re most comfortable with. Being there for your child’s important moments of all types shows unconditional love, and allows your kid to have the courage and confidence to pursue and live a life filled with activities he loves to do.
  1. Allow all emotions to be expressed.  Social norms teach girls that anger isn’t pretty, and that boys should be tough and not cry. If your boy can’t feel comfortable expressing vulnerability and sadness with you, to whom can he turn? If your girl feels that anger is unacceptable and she is unable to express it in a safe and healthy way, how will that manifest down the road? Too often, by suppressing these true feelings, they get turned inwards and lead to self-destructive behaviors later on. Allowing your children to feel, identify and work through the spectrum of emotions teaches them distress tolerance and emotional acceptance.
  1. Lead by example.  Think about the behavioral responses and coping skills you want to teach your children so that they can deal with stress and difficult emotions and then implement them. Instead of pouring yourself a drink at the end of a long day, you may want to go on a run or do something you enjoy that helps you decompress. Modeling healthy behavior is the greatest way to show your kids what a mature adult should look like: namely, you!

What does fatherhood –or “manhood” – mean to you? Share in the comments section below.