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John Duffy, Psy.D. Headshot

The Evolution of the American Father: Dad Redefined

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Thinking back, my father and I exchanged precious few words in a given day. Some days, Walt and I hardly even saw one another. I feared him as a kid. "Wait till your father gets home" worked on me. It took me many years to learn who he really was and figure out that he was actually my hero.

Now, I knew that my father loved me. He told me so. Every day. But he was busy. He had a job, neckties, meetings. He washed the car on weekends, kicked the tires, smoked a pipe, edged. I think a lot of dads a generation ago were like mine. Our fathers were stoic.

I've heard fathers claim in my office that their children treat them like ATMs. Well, the fathers of a generation ago were not ATMs. Not exactly. They were more like vending machines. They dispensed -- advice, life lessons, closed-ended questions, spankings, lectures, punishments, disappointed head shakes, occasional approving glances, fear. Once in a while, I suppose they did actually dispense cash.

Sure, dads would play with their kids back then. But we were not our fathers' playmates. Our fathers were emotionally removed, somehow. We weren't close to our dads. We didn't actually talk to them, or know them. This was not a reflection of negligence; it was simply not part of the job description for a dad. The connection thing was out of their purview and handled elsewhere.

That's where moms came in. The overt expression of love, this was mom stuff, as was the creative play, the self-esteem building, the making of sandwiches, the drying of tears, the day-to-day parenting -- mom stuff. Our dads did their jobs as dads. They earned. They provided. They dispensed.

Well, in the last generation or so, the role of dad has definitely changed. Today, dads arrange to shift their workday an hour or two earlier to coach a team, or secure prime recording seats for a budding viola player's concert. Dads build forts, help with school projects, play video games. Dads today are willing to laugh with their kids. This is huge. Dads protect time. Sure, we may still dispense, but we also connect.

I think we recognize that we do not want to miss some of those moments our own fathers were willing to miss. We have decided, quite overtly, that we want to be closer with our kids. We want to be there to see them shaking off sleep in the morning, to kiss their shaggy heads good night. We want to know their joy, and their heartbreak. Sometimes, we want to be the shoulder to cry on, the homework buddy. We want to be there to see the home run, the drum solo or the lead role. A text will simply not do.

We dads today are without a doubt closer to our kids. Now, I'm not sure why this rather seismic shift has taken place. I suspect it might have been a selfish thing at first -- why should moms have all the fun, after all? Whatever the reason, I know a couple things for certain. We're better off this way. We're better fathers, for sure. We enjoy fatherhood as well. I'm not sure our own dads could have said that. And our kids can enjoy a degree of connection and comfort with their fathers that might have seemed absurd just a short while ago.

A friend of mine, a high-profile attorney, protected time last year to coach his daughter's softball team to the state championship game. I suspect that he may be more proud of that accomplishment than being a high-profile attorney. Another dad I know takes his teenage sons on concert dates, and they take turns choosing the artists. Yet another dad is his daughter's emotional rock as he guides her through the darkness of her depression, occasionally shedding an empathic tear himself. These are the New Dads.

When I was a younger man, my father and I protected a week for each other every year. We spent countless hours aimlessly walking endless beaches, riding choppy waves, achieving downright irresponsible sunburns. At nights, over lobster and Coca-Cola, we would recount stories, weave philosophies and laugh like maniacs. We connected, man!

I'll be forever grateful that he and I took the time to foster that connection before he passed away, but if I'm being honest, I wish I had had that connection with him years earlier. He didn't need me to fear him to make an impact. He would have had my love and respect in spades. He was smart, insightful, a blast. He cherished relationships over money. He had a most generous spirit and the heartiest laugh I've ever known. He made it his mission to help people. And he impacted so many lives that I hear surprising new stories about him all the time. He led a simple, joyful life.

I was lucky; I got a do-over with my dad, but it looks like today's generation will get to know their heroes even sooner.

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