It has been over two years since I first read a blog post by Justin Ricklefs titled 15 Things all Dads of Daughters Should Know. Truth is, the 15 things seem like no-brainers when you read them. But in practice, I find it difficult to feel like I am successful in all of those areas on a regular basis. As a result, I’ve revisited the article every month, religiously (I have a monthly reminder set), in an effort to remind myself of the importance of being a positive role model for my daughter, and as a regular check on how I am doing. And while I am still working toward perfecting my role as dad to my daughter, I have been thinking more about what 15 things I should focus on in raising my son as well.
After reflecting on my own childhood and the past ten years of raising my son, I have identified 15 truths for raising a strong, loving, compassionate, caring and empathetic dude.
1.- Teach him the power of love by telling him “I love you” every chance you get. He wants to be loved by you just as much as any daughter. He may shrug it off during his teen years, but he wants to hear it on a regular basis. Our family started saying “I love you” regularly from the beginning (props to my incredible wife for bringing this practice from her family to ours). Now, my son and I rarely end any discussion, phone call or text exchange without those three powerful words. Sometimes he says it first, sometimes I do. But it is a regular reminder that our love for one another is there, regardless of the situation, and it is the norm for males to openly express that to each other.
2.- You are a direct influence on how he acts with other boys and men. He is watching, whether you know it or not. Teach him that everyone on this great planet is equal and deserving of love and respect. Be the man, friend, and partner you want him to become.
3.- As he grows up, go all-in. I did some really stupid things growing up, he will too. There is a fine line between being overbearing and letting him learn from his mistakes. Science tells us that the male brain takes longer to mature than the female brain, this is partially why teenage boys do stupid things. But we should not let this be an excuse. You can be his friend during the teen years, but that should not stand in the way of your being his dad first and foremost.
4.- He is watching how you treat his mom. The way you treat his mom will shape how he treats women throughout his life, including his future partner. To paraphrase Justin Ricklefs, “One of the best things you can do for your daughter [or son] is to love [their] mom well.”
5.- Let your feelings and emotions show, and show him it is alright to cry. This one is huge, and I say that from personal experience. I grew up in a very loving family, but somehow I came out as an adult that was not confident in showing his emotions. God bless my wife — when I met her 25 years ago I didn’t have much to say, didn’t voice my own opinions and was emotionless. To this day I wonder what she saw in me. There is still resistance by males in this world to show emotion as if it is some sign of weakness. Steer your son away from this mindset, by all means necessary. I remember one time my son and I both cried together, initially in sorrow and then in laughter. I am embarrassed to admit that it did happen in a rather stereotypical male way (over the Baltimore Raven’s losing their playoff game in 2012 that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl). Since then we have seen each other shed tears during movies and other emotional times. It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign that we are human and we care.
6.- Teach him how to stand up for others and what is right. Now more than ever it is important for him to have confidence in standing up for what is right and to know that his dad supports him. Whether it is standing up for a cause he is passionate about, a friend, his sister, or an innocent bystander. He needs to know that there are certain things that are worth fighting for.
7.- Make as many memories as possible, and they don’t have to occur in a “man cave”.
8.- Make sure he knows it’s not about him. As good citizens and humans, we have the opportunity to make a difference in this world every day. But in the overall scheme of things, we are insignificant — but a speck on the universal timeline. He will be remembered not for how cool he thought he was but for the type of person he truly was and how he treated others.
9.- Show up to his events, he will remember. To this day I don’t remember the score, opposing team or outcome of the majority of the lacrosse or soccer games I ever played growing up. But I vividly remember glancing to the sideline while I was on the playing field and seeing my dad leaning on the fence cheering me on. The first person a boy looks to for approval and acceptance is his dad — he needs to know that you are paying attention.
10.- Proximity does not equal presence. I still struggle with this, I’m sure I am not the only one. Mobile phones are a daily part of our lives and jobs. Teach yourself to put them away and give him your undivided attention. Do play plenty of non-violent video games with him, but leave your phone somewhere else.
11.- He smells—teach him to wash, wear deodorant and brush his teeth properly, every day. There is something to be said for not worrying about this at a young age, but our sons need to know that this is part of being respectful and considerate to others.
12.- Teach him the meaning and importance of beauty. It is important for him to appreciate the beauty in other people and the world around him. As dads, we need to help our sons understand that beauty is more than just looks. The sooner our sons understand this, the sooner they will shift the paradigm for the better.
13.- He can be friends with boys and girls alike. Growing up I was never friends with girls — boys were friends, girls were girlfriends. As a result, I was very awkward around girls throughout my school age years. I see this same dynamic play out with boys and girls today. Make sure your son knows how to be friends with girls from a young age and treats them the same as anyone of his boyfriends. They could turn out to be the most valuable long-term friendships he has. He will thank you for it one day.
14.- Teach him that he can be a feminist.
15.- Make sure he knows how to give a sincere apology. He is going to screw up, he is going to be a jerky guy from time-to-time, it is baked in our culture. Teach him how to apologize when necessary. No one is perfect, and our sons should not be made to feel as though they need to be. But if they have the right role models, they will know right from wrong, willingly admit when they have made a mistake, and move forward to change the world for the better.
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