Co-authored by Robert Garfield, M.D.
As psychiatrists and family therapists, we spend a great deal of time working with men on issues of fatherhood including the themes of communication, commitment, identity, intimacy and trust. The men we work with come to us because they have difficulties in their personal lives relating to the people they love most. They yearn for their children to be happy and successful, yet they often lack the skills and ability to model a way to help them accomplish this.
The problem is that many men continue to operate under the rules of Male Code (1), a rigid set of social guidelines, both spoken and unspoken, that equates masculinity with stoicism, silence, and strength. These "rules of the road" have been in place in the US for nearly 200 years (2). While traditional male behaviors have ensured that men acquire positions of privilege, prestige and power, they can be detrimental to men's health and relationships, particularly in parenting their children. Poor attention to their physical health, and lack of emotional engagement in their marriages have resulted in men's shortened life spans and increases in their partners initiating divorce today (3,4).
As men are now being called upon to spend more time and participate in the direct care of their kids (5), they often find themselves emotionally overwhelmed trying to balance work, relationship and family demands. In our national survey, we found that men with higher emotional intimacy (EI) skills did better in their relationships with their children (6). The following guidelines can help men overcome the limitations of traditional male code and better navigate the complicated pathways of modern fatherhood.
1. Be Emotionally Available and Vulnerable
Fathers have traditionally defined their roles as providers and protectors. As a dad, it's good to get involved from the start in day-to-day parenting activities. That's how you get to know your kids from "the ground floor up." Interacting in close quarters, however, brings up surprisingly intense feelings, both positive and negative. Dads need support from their partners and friends to stay open and respond to the emotional demands of parenting. This allows children to feel that they are connected and can open up with their fathers.
2. Listen and Empathize
Men often feel that their role should be to provide advice and wisdom. This is great when they actually have this to provide, but good parenting often requires listening without having an answer. Empathy is a communication skill that that involves imagining what others feel, and then validating our guess. It's a great trait to develop with your kids (and with others as well) and you can start even before your kids learn to speak. Too often fathers confuse listening with passivity, and fail to make strong connections with their kids.
3. Show Physical Affection
Society has presented fathers with confusing advice about showing physical affection, particularly with their sons, because of the mistaken notion that this encourages weakness of character. There's more evidence to the contrary, however. Psychologist and historian, Lloyd DeMause points out that boys' problems with aggression and lack of impulse control is more connected to the lack of tender nurturance, physical touch and verbal cooing they receive as infants rather than testosterone levels (which is relatively equal in boys and girls during early childhood years) (7). Consequently, boys don't learn to self-soothe as well as girls do. Dads, it's okay to hug and kiss your boys and girls as much as you want, for as long as you want -- as long as they enjoy it.
4. Learn to Let Go of Control
If you've done your job well as a parent, eventually your kids will be able to leave home and live on their own. This doesn't happen all at once, and many kids, even after high school have periods of returning to live at home while they work on becoming independent. Because control is such an important aspect of Male Code, many fathers have trouble letting go, being able to trust their children, and struggle with the emotions of loss that accompany this transition. You can have a continued mentoring role with your adult kids as they go through this period of separation as a caring father who respectfully checks in and is interested in sharing his feelings and finding out about his children's lives. Believe it or not, your children really appreciate this kind of "post-graduate" relationship. It opens the door for your having a mature friendship with them over time.
5. Finally, Honor Your Partner
Remember that fathering is generally done in partnership. Women have carried the load, physically and emotionally of parenting for generations, and haven't gotten the respect they deserve for all of the hard work they've done. As you are developing your identity as a first-rate father, remember to honor your partner, female or male, in this process. In doing so, honor the role that feminism and gender equality continue to play in allowing you to become this kind of dad. Your children will absorb this and will appreciate this attitude of respect and carry it with them as they develop into healthy adults.
1) Robert Garfield, Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship, (New York: Gotham, May, 2015), Ch 2.
2) Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), pp42-64
3) Chris Woolston, "Health Benefits of Friendship," HealthDay, March 11, 2014, a review of medical research on friendship and heart health.
4) Vicki Larson, "Why Women Walk Out More Than Men," Huffington Post, May 25, 2011. Larson cites a report from the National Marriage Project, University of Virginia.
5) Kim Parker and Wendy Wang, "Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family," PewResearch Social & Demographic Trends, March 14, 2013.
6) Robert Heasley, Robert Garfield et al, "The Male Friendship and Emotional Intimacy (MFEI) Survey: An Initial Report," in Robert Garfield, Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship, (New York: Gotham, May, 2015), p.272
7) Lloyd DeMausse, "Why Men are More Violent," in The origins of war in child abuse, printed in the Journal of Psychohistory, 2010
Dr. Ascher invited Dr. Garfield to join him in writing this piece, highlighting Dr. Garfield's ideas about parenting from his forthcoming book, "Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship" (New York: Gotham, 2015). Dr. Garfield is a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Ascher serves as a clinical associate in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and is in private practice. He is also a co-author of the upcoming textbook "Couples and Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Fifth Edition" (London: Wiley, 2015).