How to Be a Good Dad

photo: stephen sheffield

An excerpt from The Modern Dad’s Dilemma

by John Badalament.

At the age of 25, not yet a dad myself, I walked into my father’s office to reconcile our past—he thought we were going out for lunch. Until that moment, I hadn’t had the courage to speak honestly and directly with my father about the past. That would change in ten short minutes.

I told my father that we weren’t actually going to lunch, that he should stay seated and not respond to anything he was about to hear. He had plenty of time to speak over the years; now it was my turn. Barely able to breathe, I said, “You’ve done a lot of great things for me as a dad.” After describing a few, such as how he had supported my love of baseball and patiently taught me how to drive, I said, “And… I want you to know that growing up with you was also very, very difficult. You were irresponsible, alcoholic, and abusive. As a consequence, I struggle, and still struggle to this day, to feel good about myself. I don’t want you to do anything. I’m an adult, and these are my issues to deal with now.”

He opened his mouth to speak, and for the first time ever, I raised my hand and motioned for him to stop. I knew that if I allowed him to talk, he would almost certainly try to explain, minimize, or deny what I was saying, and like most loyal sons, I would back down from speaking the truth of my experience.

Confronting my father at 25 was the single most difficult, emotionally raw moment of my life. As a kid, I was taught that vulnerability got you nothing but trouble and thus learned to hate it. The currency of my upper-middle-class boyhood was as follows: being tough, “getting” the girls, and holding your own in sports. If you had no currency, you were at risk of verbal or physical reprisals. I spent a great deal of time and energy avoiding situations in which I could be taken advantage of, proved wrong, or made to look like a “wimp.” Implicitly, discussing feelings and relationships with or around other boys was forbidden.

When I left my dad’s office that day, I assumed my departure would mark the end of our relationship, that he would want nothing more to do with me. Paradoxically, once I found my voice and spoke up — as uncomfortable and frightening as it was—our relationship actually grew stronger. While we didn’t necessarily spend more time together, speak more often, or agree on everything (past or present), a more honest dialogue developed between us. There was no longer one voice, one truth, or one authority. We became two adults, not a father and a child. Don’t get me wrong; my dad didn’t enjoy being confronted with his past, but the effect of that one conversation was deep and long-lasting.

Four years ago my father became ill from years of neglecting his diabetes. As his condition worsened, it became clear he wouldn’t be leaving the hospital. I remember looking him in the eye one afternoon and saying, “You can go now, Dad. There’s nothing left to do here.” He looked back at me, smiled, teared up, and nodded. Our peace was made. A few days later he quietly passed away.

I feel fortunate for having had the chance to reconcile with him—holding my father lovingly accountable, as each new generation must do—but sad that so much of his story was shrouded in mystery. I knew very little about his life as a husband and a dad: What did he love about being a husband? What did he worry about as a father? What brought him joy? When did he feel like he was doing a great job as a father? What did marriage and fatherhood mean to him?

It’s never too late for the truth. This is why I remind dads—myself included— of that all-too-common movie scene in which the dad is on his deathbed and finally tries to talk to his adult child (usually a son) to admit his mistakes, to reveal his humanity, thereby giving the purest possible expression of love. Finally, in the fading light, his vulnerability opens the door for the child to have a voice, to reconcile a lifetime of distance, conflict, absence, or emotional silence. As modern dads, we must rewrite this scene for our children. They need not wait so long.

In my educational consulting work, I do an activity with students in which they anonymously write down two questions they’ve always wanted to ask their dad. No matter what their ethnic, cultural, racial, or socioeconomic background is, the students’ two most common questions are almost always: “What was your relationship like with your father?” and “What was your childhood like?” (sometimes worded as, “What were you like at my age?”). Though they may not ask, children want and need their dad’s stories, even if they never knew who their dad was. I call it the elephant in the living room of child development: the missing stories of men’s lives, particularly men’s emotional lives.

Like many dads, I didn’t grow up having the kind of close, emotionally connected relationship with my father that I want with my children today. Are there aspects of his legacy I want to keep or pass on to my children? Yes. Are there mistakes I’m determined not to repeat? Of course. This is not, however, a matter of intention only—what dad doesn’t want to be close with his children? The question is how: How can I give what I didn’t get?

In my workshops for parents, I often ask dads to describe the kind of relationship they are trying to build with their children. Whether I’m at an elite private school, a prison, or a public library, the responses are similar. Most dads and father figures want to have a strong, close bond with their children, to always be a trustworthy and vital presence, and to be someone to turn to for advice, support, or just to talk to. Most dads want their sons and daughters to feel secure in knowing that they can always come to them and share what’s going on in their lives, good and bad.

In the past decade of working with dads of all backgrounds, I have heard this chorus grow louder: modern dads want connection, closeness, and intimacy. Unlike fathers of generations past, whose lives were so often cloaked in silence and mystery, dads today are increasingly vocal about this vision. Modern dads want to be the competent, caring, and supportive parents and partners that deep down we know we are capable of being. This is my cause for hope.

It starts with modern dads speaking the truth about what fatherhood means to us —how it challenges our beliefs about manhood, raises fears about repeating mistakes of the past, and ultimately reveals our capacity to love another human being unconditionally. It starts with also making space in our relationships to truly listen to our loved ones. Our children and families not only want but need us to deliver on this new vision of fatherhood.

♦♦♦

Three essential qualities are vital in realizing this new vision:

1. Self-knowledge. A modern dad envisions a healthy future for his kids by understanding his past. Where did you learn to be a father? Who are your models? What does a successful, healthy, and solid relationship look like? How will you pass on the gifts from your father’s legacy, while protecting your children from the mistakes? Being clear about the quality of relationship you want with your children—and about how to go about achieving that—is critical. To do so without an honest look at your own positive and negative experiences growing up with (or without) your father, mother, and other caregivers is a mistake.

2. Courage. A modern dad has the courage to explore different ways of fathering—even if it means failing, not having all the answers, or appearing “unmanly.” Stepping into the unfamiliar or the unknown takes courage. For some dads, it is a small act of courage to proactively get involved in making doctor appointments, arranging childcare, or joining the PTA at his son’s school. For others, just getting down on the floor, being present, and playing with their kids takes courage. As with the first stay-at-home dads who pushed baby strollers into a playground full of mothers—and got looks that said, “Why isn’t he working” or “What’s wrong with him?”—it takes courage to go against the grain.

3. Adaptability. A modern dad sees the rapidly changing roles of men in family life as an opportunity—not a burden—to be a better dad. In a time of great social change, there is always a sense of confusion, uncertainty, or even chaos. As women have collectively worked to redefine womanhood and motherhood over decades (especially in the latter half of the twentieth century), the very foundations of traditional, patriarchal society—white men assuming the exclusive right to power and privilege, while subordinating and subjugating women, people of color, and other groups—have begun to shift. The civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and the women’s movement have all contributed to the reconfiguring of modern fatherhood and masculinity.

Do we see the emerging job description of fatherhood—which involves tasks and roles more closely associated with stereotypical “women’s work,” such as cleaning and childcare—as an opportunity to be better dads, capable of raising healthy, strong, and bighearted girls and boys? Or do we see modern fatherhood as a temporary setback to the natural order of things and long for the days when gender roles were more rigidly defined?

It’s time to ask more of ourselves as dads. Being a father is not something you are; it’s something you do. By showing up for our children and partners, learning new skills, building support networks, and measuring success by the quality and health of our relationships, modern dads have only just set out on the road leading back home.

♦♦♦

“Imagine that twenty years from now your child is being interviewed for a documentary film about your life,” I said to the five dads sitting in front of me in a circle. “Now, imagine that the filmmaker asks your child to describe his or her relationship with you. What do you hope your child will say in that interview?”

In a larger circle of chairs surrounding us sat their sons and daughters, as well as about fifteen other dad-child pairs. They sat very still while the dads contemplated this simple, provocative question. One by one, each of the dads in the small circle looked up and responded. “I hope my daughter says, ‘Dad always took the time to be with me.’” “I hope he says, ‘Dad taught me how to respect women, how to be a good husband.’” “I hope he says, ‘Dad talked to me; he was someone I could trust with anything.’”

Now with a captivated audience—children and dads alike—most of whom had never seen a group of adult men speak so honestly and openly, I asked a follow-up question: “What do you hope your child will not say in an interview about his or her relationship with you?” Again there was a pause, but this time there were smiles. “This one’s not so hard, is it?” I said with a chuckle. As a dad myself, I know how quickly I can access my fears and insecurities about fathering. Then the dads answered: “I hope my son doesn’t say, ‘Thanks, Mom! Dad was never around.’” “I hope my daughter doesn’t say, ‘Dad wasn’t somebody I could talk to.’” “I hope he doesn’t say, ‘Dad pushed me too hard.’” “I hope she doesn’t say, ‘Dad never listened to me.’”

After all five dads had spoken, I asked for a volunteer. Jeremy, a stocky dad in his late thirties with an 8-year-old-son, Kyle, agreed to be the guinea pig. He turned and scanned the outer circle of observers to find his son. Kyle flashed Jeremy a nervous smile and gave a quick nod of approval.

This last part, I explained, is where the rubber meets the road. Jeremy repeated his answer to the first question. Twenty years from now he hoped his son would say, “I feel really close to my dad. He was always there for me.” “So, Jeremy,” I asked, “what are you currently doing to increase the odds of your son actually saying such things in 2030?” Jumping right in, Jeremy described how he volunteers in Kyle’s classroom at school, how he constantly plays sports with him, and how much one-on-one time they spend together. The other dads nodded, seemingly impressed with his answer. Kyle had a grin plastered on his face. Following up, I asked what he will do in the future to keep the odds favorable. “I guess I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do when he’s a teenager and doesn’t want me around so much.” Jeremy was clearly involved in Kyle’s life and had a sense of the challenges ahead.

We moved on to another question. “I hope Kyle wouldn’t say, ‘Dad was too hard on me’ or ‘he didn’t let me be myself,’” Jeremy said somewhat sheepishly. Whenever a dad speaks so honestly, especially with his child bearing witness, everyone else in the room seems to feel it. I paused for a few beats and then continued. “Is there anything you need to change, Jeremy, so that in twenty years Kyle won’t say you were too hard on him?” I repeated the question. Then, as if admitting it to himself for the first time, Jeremy said, “I need to stop pressuring him, and stop worrying that he won’t be interested in sports.” He sighed, as if a big weight had been lifted, and turned to Kyle.

I continued, “Finally, what are your priorities from this moment forward?” Almost before I could finish my sentence, Jeremy said, “I’m going to tell him a story about the pressure I felt to be a star athlete, and I’m going to pay more attention to him, to what he’s interested in.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. Kyle was beaming.

Each of the five dads, began to create what I call a Dad’s Vision Statement. Whether it’s for a Fortune 500 company, a global relief agency, or a personal relationship, an effective vision statement clarifies a sense of purpose, priorities, and values. We can see from Jeremy’s story that his purpose is to have a close relationship with his son, that his priorities are being involved and present, and that he values attention, listening, and growth.

The Dad’s Vision Statement is meant to serve as a living document. As you and your children grow and enter new stages of life, revisiting your vision can lead to a shift in priorities and a change in action. Recently, for example, my vision statement proved very useful in helping me make sense of a recurring conflict I was having with my 5-year-old daughter. Under the guise of “not wanting her to be so shy,” I found myself pushing Stella to be more outgoing and social, which, of course, she resisted. It felt like a lose-lose situation. The day after one such incident, in which I badgered her to leave my side at a birthday party and join the other girls her age, I decided to take a look at my Dad’s Vision Statement.

The first line read, “I hope Stella says she felt loved and respected for being herself.” This seemed pretty cut-and-dried. In this case, respecting Stella would mean I would have to stop pushing her. What, I wondered, could be so hard about that? As I dug a little deeper, I realized I had created a story in my head about her shyness: I was afraid that her shyness would lead to her becoming a follower, in turn making her more vulnerable and impressionable, which could lead to her getting taken advantage of or teased, which could lead to her falling in with the wrong crowd…. This far-fetched story, while possible, had actually blinded me to seeing, let alone respecting, Stella for “being herself.”

From that one sentence in my vision statement, I was able to see the discrepancy between my intention and my actions. As I changed my behavior and let Stella be as shy as she needed to be, I gradually started seeing her in a completely different light: as a perceptive little girl who, in most social settings, likes to get the lay of the land—observe people, check out her surroundings—before diving in. And sometimes I still encourage Stella to take social risks. When she pushes back, however, I don’t feel worried or frustrated. Instead, I’ve come to trust and genuinely admire her sense of knowing what she needs and who she is.

♦♦♦

How well do you really know your children? Would you consider yourself an expert on their lives? I often give parents a pop quiz to illustrate why it’s so important for us to ask ourselves these seemingly basic questions. The quiz addresses two main areas: what you know about your children’s outer life—what they do, where they go, who they spend time with, how they behave—and what you know about your children’s inner life—what they like and dislike, how they feel about themselves, what they hope for, what they worry about, and who and what is important to them.

Given that children are perpetually changing, the quiz is meant to be done regularly. So, to get you started, why don’t you take a mini-quiz and answer the following three questions: 1. What recent accomplishment, big or small, is your child most proud of? 2. What was one of your child’s big disappointments this year? 3. What are your child’s current prized possessions?

How did you do? To be sure, you would have to check with the source. While it feels really good to ace the quiz and equally awful to flunk, this exercise is not intended to qualify you for Dad of the Year; depending on many variables, such as when you take the quiz or how often you see your children, your results will undoubtedly vary.

Claiming expert status is a stretch for some dads, myself included. By being an expert on my daughter’s life, for instance, I communicate a clear, powerful message that she is worthy of time, interest, and attention to detail. The feeling of being valued and loved simply for being herself builds the foundation for healthy self-esteem. Older children as well as teens also need parents who genuinely take an interest in their lives without the parents being overly intrusive. Our kids want us in the background, on call, or standing by. Unfortunately, teens often have strange ways of asking their parents to be there. For example, I often communicated my desire to be known by my father or stepfather by getting into trouble.

If our sons and daughters don’t feel that we know them, chances are they won’t tell us this. Both girls and boys often say their silence is rooted in fear or resentment. Ironically, many are afraid to tell their dad how rejected they feel, believing such honesty will only upset their dad more and drive him farther away. Some fear their dad will hear their words as criticism and get upset. Other young people resent their dad’s absence or disinterest and retaliate by quietly pulling back, leading their dad to believe the relationship is just fine.

Studies done with teens show they really do want parents involved in their lives. In her study of fathers and sons, researcher Ricky Pelach-Galil found that when boys are around 13 to 14, the father becomes a central figure in their lives. The boys interviewed for the study reported paying close attention to their father’s habits, values, and routines, as well as his interest in their lives. This is, of course, the same age when boys are pushing away from their parents to be with their friends.

Daughters are no different. In a large survey of girls in grades eight to twelve, daughters consistently said they wanted more time with their fathers, better communication, and a sense that their fathers were interested in their lives. As one girl put it, “I wish my father would try to understand me more.”

Knowing our children is not only important to their health and well-being but also a powerful form of risk prevention. One study found that parental knowledge—being aware of your child’s daily activities, whereabouts, and companions—reduces the incidence of teen drug use. It’s not just about keeping tabs or the occasional interrogation; it requires two-way communication. If an eighth-grade boy wants to give his dad the slip after school or withhold information about his new friends, chances are he could pull it off. If that same boy feels trusted, valued, and understood—that his parents know him—he won’t need or even want to keep them in the dark.

♦♦♦

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 the auditorium will say without hesitation that 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. 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.

Interestingly, a study by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health found that fathers who were actively involved in their children’s lives had fewer accidental deaths, fewer premature deaths, less substance abuse, and fewer hospital admissions. Not only is a close father-child relationship good for children, but it’s a positive aspect of men’s physical and mental health.

I wrote earlier about how all children need a dad who listens, pays attention, is accessible, and is an active presence in their lives. We need to know our kids. But dads also need to be known. 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 before, 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?” 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.

♦♦♦

This essay was excerpted from the book The Modern Dad’s Dilemma ©2010 by John Badalament. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com.

The following exercises were designed for dads to do with their children.

How to Be a Good Dad Exercises


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About John Badalament

John Badalament, EdM, is a Harvard-trained educator, leading expert on fatherhood, and the author of The Modern Dad’s Dilemma (New World Library, 2010). He is also the director of the acclaimed PBS documentary All Men Are Sons: Exploring the Legacy of Fatherhood. His work has been featured in the New York Times and other publications. Visit him online at Modern Dads.

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    John thanks for you friendship and advice here. Great stuff bro.

  2. john badalament says:

    tom – wow, the site looks fantastic! I hope you and your team can, at some point in near future, take pause to acknowledge the amazing, important work you’ve done thus far; like many others, I am honored and excited to be a part of the next chapter. thank you, it’s been great getting to know you…
    john

  3. Great article, Tom. Your emphasis on listening to the children and understanding their individuality is so important to developing a good rapport. We all know how different every child is, as we can see with our own sibblings. The uniqueness of a child probably means that they are substantial differences between you and your child and you need to respect those differences. Imposing your parental values or hopes or dreams onto a child is often counter productive. Support them for who they are.

    Lastly, I think the biggest common flaw in bad fathers is an almost primal need to disclipine the child. Society expects men to bring down the hammer. In most cases, discipline is not needed, especially if you have a strong rapport with your child. Take it easy, explain what’s wrong, and discuss why a different behavior might be better. Sometimes I wait a week before pointing out what was wrong with a behavior to eliminate the a defensive response. If he does something wrong, and it’s not a safety issue, I make a mental note, and bring it up later, perhaps as part of an annecdote that reflects on the particular situation. There is no need to jump on a child for doing something wrong, particularly as this will endanger your mutual bond. Go slow and give guidance. The child will typically see the right behavior and will grow into it. Be supportive as he / she evolves and preserve your close bond forever.

  4. I’ll be gentle with you Don: ‘Primal’ is an apt word for the ‘flaw’ you’ve identified. ‘Bringing down the hammer’ is often an urge which originates deep in a man’s gut that says, ‘If I had done that my father…my mother…grandfather/mother…that man would have…______ (fill in the blank with an assortment of cruel, mean-spirited, torturous verbal and/or physical ‘lessons’ designed to assure we’d think twice before trespassing into simple boyhood prank mode). ‘Bad fathers’ means to me: Unhealed boys-living in a man’s body with numerous unaddressed pains, injustices, and uncried tears…swallowed, becoming a bitter brew that can be spewed out toward our children and our women.
    It’s great that you have such patience, interest, and perseverance. Discipline SHOULD start at birth-but when a dad is behind, he’d do well to explore his ‘boy’ before entering the discipline arena.

  5. Hello, I am a Mother of three beautiful children. I would like to first commend this beautiful page…I commend the fathers who want to be in thier children’s life. I believe that men can do just about what us Mothers can …All you beautiful father’s keep up the wonderful work…love your chldren, take care of them, talk to them, be sensitive, be trustworthy, be loving, that is part of what makes Daddy. Let the world know that you do exist. It’s unfortunate that society is still a bit ignorrant to this sort of thing. Yes, there are men out there who do not deserve the title of “Father”, “Dad”, etc. But, I will say it again, More Power To You Beautiful Fathers! More power to you! Amen…

  6. luvo maqanda says:

    im 20 year old father and im nt sure im the gud father

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