In my previous post, I talked about how fathers find themselves walking a delicate balance between being hard and being gentle and loving with their children. Fathers, first and foremost, are expected to prepare children to be successful as adults, which demands that, at times, they be hard, unfair, and prioritize reason over their desire to be loving towards their children.
There are many reasons why a man might have a hard time striking that balance: they may be caught up in using parenting tools from a harder time in our past, they may not have a male role-model of their own to emulate, or they may simply have been bullied so much in the past that they don’t know how to enforce boundaries without cruelty. Whatever the case, a father who is harsh, rough, or unkind to his children is actually a good sign. He knows that his job is to help his children become strong adults, and he is trying – he’s just not doing a great job. He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t care about his children. It is more worrying when you have a father who is remote.
Again, I am not here talking about men who are wilfully violent or psychologically abuse, of their children, but rather the ones who are harsh, unkind, or cold to them.
So the question is, how do we help a dad like that add a little more compassion into his parenting?
Ultimately a man who is hard with his children knows that he is being hard. He either believes that this is what he must do to be a good father, or he doesn’t have the tools available to him to soften his approach.
There has always been a belief that too much kindness can leave a boy unready for the world. That harsh and direct penalties are the only way to make sure a child grows up to be a moral and responsible adult. Adages like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” and “Coddle the boy, cuckold the man.” still linger in our culture. And a man who believes that may find it hard to accept the idea that his parenting is poor – it ws probably the way he was parented, and in approaching it indelicately you may offend him by insulting his parents
Many young men whose fathers were harsh grow up to hero-worship their tough fathers as adults. In the end, men who are raised by harsh fathers often do turn out to be resilient, driven, and successful; there is something to be said in the positive about a colder, harder style. At the same time, those men often feel unloved, and grow up with pain that often leads to drink, womanizing, fighting, drugs, or depression.
(I always am struck by the life of Winston Churchill when I talk about fathering. He was a gifted leader, perhaps one of the greatest men in his time, and partially that can be attributed to the fact that his father was incredibly cold towards him. Churchill venerated his father, and never once said a bitter word about him. And Churchill himself was a poor father, and a man that struggled with drink and depression.)
In order to talk to a man who is hard with his children, you need to approach it like you would any delicate situation. A forthright statement about your opinion, validating the other person’s feelings, and an actionable request. Framed in I-statements, and with some positivity to counterbalance what is ultimately a negative conversation.
It helps to look at what exactly he does that seems hard with his children: Does he withhold affection? Is he hypercritical of what his children do? Does he call them names? Does he punish unreasonably? Does he act disapproving? If you know what he does that bothers you, you can communicate that to him, and suggest he try a different approach.
When you know what bothers you, you can come up with an action you can ask him to do to remedy the problem that you can ask of him.
The conversation should go roughly like this:
“James, I need to talk to you about your relationship with Polly, because I am concerned. I understand how hard a job fathering is; you have to make sure that she grows up into a smart, self-respecting girl. You do a great job with her on that front. I know that with you as a father, she will grow up smart enough not to get herself into trouble. I worry about the fact that you don’t show affection to her. I can tell that she is afraid you don’t love her. I would really appreciate it if you made a point of hugging her or telling her that you are proud of her. Would you try it just once a week for awhile?”
In this script I mentioned what I believed fatherhood to be, and told him how he did a great job. In doing that I make sure he is open to hearing my concerns as well. Many men worry that they do not know how to be a father, and having your expectations spelled out can be an incredible relief. It was only then that I talked about a specific problem behaviour, and asked for a specific solution.
When it comes to men, if they see that you have a good reason to voice a concern, and you have a specific request to remedy it, they are far more likely to follow through.
By focusing on my perceptions I also kept it from feeling like an accusation. I stated the behaviour as a cause and effect. Withholding praise leads to girl feeling unloved. that is very different from suggesting that James doesn’t love Polly.
It is absolutely vital that this sort of request sees some follow up. If James started hugging Polly and Polly became happier, I would tell James I think so, and compliment his parenting skills.
Of course, in the long run, this is only one step. In order for a man to truly change the way he parents, he needs positive role-models. He needs to be around other good dads and learn from them. There are not as many options as there once was for men looking for a support community. Many religious communities have men’s groups that offer support to men who are trying to be better fathers and husbands, and those can be a very valuable help. Another, simpler option is the softball / hockey team, or the birthday party circuit. When kids get together for an activity, it gives the parents a chance to mingle. A man can easily get to know other fathers in his community and have an excellent pretext to talk to one another about parenting around a sports team or similar program. In time, it is a place where he can learn to make friends to whom he can ask difficult questions.
A community of men helps build better and wiser men.