In The Modern Dad’s Dilemma: How to Stay Connected with Your Kids in a Rapidly Changing World (New World Library, June 2010), Harvard educator and PBS documentary director, John Badalament, presents practical, hands-on activities to support the growing wave of dads who want to develop healthier and more emotionally meaningful relationships with their children.
The exercises in The Modern Dad’s Dilemma are illustrated with inspiring stories from a diverse group of fathers, ranging from divorced single fathers, to stay-at-home dads, to Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, and much more.
In this interview, John offers tips and techniques that dads can use right away to strengthen their bonds with their children. For information about The Modern Dad’s Dilemma, visit http://www.ModernDads.net
Randy Peyser: What compelled you to write “The Modern Dad’s Dilemma?”
John Badalament: I saw a groundswell of desire on the part of dads and dad-figures to be more engaged in their children’s lives, and little in the way of practical activities and real stories about how men have dealt with the ups and downs of becoming a dad. I wrote the book that I would have wanted to read when I first became a dad.
Dads today have a huge opportunity to redefine what it means to be a dad in ways that generations before did not. Through the women’s movement, women changed and redefined what it meant to be a woman and mother. That has raised the bar in a very good way for men to redefine fatherhood for the next generation. Many of us from the latchkey generation saw our parents breaking up in great numbers, and we don’t want to repeat that. We want to be physical, spiritual, financial and emotional providers for our children.
Randy: What is the dilemma you refer to in “The Modern Dad’s Dilemma?”
John: The dilemma is: How do we become the dads we want to be? The breadwinner model is eroding. How do we shift from the model we saw growing up where dads had a limited, but very clear job description? Now the question is: How can I be a breadwinner and also a caretaker?
How do I build a strong, healthy emotional connection with my kids, and also find my way in the working world, and at the same time, find a good nursing home for my parents? The dilemma is: How do I move into and embrace being a caretaker as well? We want to be strong, but we also want to be more nurturing; we have these natural capacities that we want to realize.
Randy: Tell me about your kids.
John: I got choked up just as you said that. Stella is 7 and Jake is 5. I call Stella “my star.” She’s strong, silly and smart. And I call Jake, “big-hearted Jake” because he has such a big heart. He’s such a wonderful little guy. I’m trying to keep that big heart alive.
Randy: Can you give an example of his big heartedness?
John: One night as I was putting him to bed, I was scratching his back and telling him a story I was making up. He had his little stuffed animal, a swan he named Swanee. He was petting Swanee and he told me he was a daddy too; he’s Swanee’s daddy. I asked him: “What’s a daddy do?” He said, “I take care of Swanee. I feed him. I tell him stories.” He gave me his definition of fatherhood, which was basically what he saw me doing. Then he said, “Dad, were you ever a baby?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, if you were a baby, I would give you hugs and kisses and I would be so gentle.”
It was one of those moments where you just melt as a parent. I said, “You’re a great daddy for Swanee and you’re going to be a great daddy someday because you are so good at taking care of Swanee.”
I had never had a conversation about fatherhood with any of the male figures in my life growing up; what it meant to be a daddy; what I should expect; or what qualities a dad had. No man ever told me: “Here are the qualities of a good dad, and you have these qualities.” It made me sad that this was a missed opportunity for the men in my life. But it also gave me joy because Jake and I have had this dialogue and I can reinforce those qualities.
Randy: Men usually aren’t known for fostering nurturing.
John: We can change this stereotype of masculinity that guys just have to be tough. That is so detrimental and harmful to boys, and to girls and women for that matter. We can foster the so-called “feminine qualities” of caretaking, nurturing, feelings, and vulnerability from a young age by talking about fatherhood with our children.
Every dad knows you have to be a caretaker, a nurturer. You have to be vulnerable. If you’re up at 3 in the morning getting Tylenol for your kid, you’re caretaking. I am encouraging dads to start a narrative, a story, with their boys about what it means to be a dad.
Let’s verbalize this. Let’s not have another generation where we are just supposed to pick up these skills and qualities by watching. A lot gets lost in translation. I saw how hard my dad worked for my family. But children don’t see that dad is gone because he is working for the family. They just see that dad’s gone and they ask themselves: “Where is he? Why isn’t he here with me?” I want to raise my daughter and son to see that a man is both strong and tender.
Women have created an oral language and a political legacy through the Women’s Movement about what it means to be a mother. As men, we now have a real opportunity to give boys an oral tradition about fatherhood. While modeling is very important, it needs to be accompanied by simple language; men need to be more verbal.
Randy: Can you give an example of simple language that a father might use with a child?
John: In this book, I share many exercises that dads can do with their kids using simple language. For example, one of the most important activities is what I call a “Relationship Checkup,” which allows dads to have a heart-to-heart talk with their children. I give two lists of questions to facilitate the conversations – one for dads and one for the children. For example:
“How are you feeling?”
“What I love about you is…”
“One thing I love about myself is…”
“One way that you’re a great dad is…”
“One way that you could be a better dad is…”
“Something in school that is important to me is…”
For teens, I share questions like: “One subject I find difficult to talk to you about is…”
Dads and their children answer each question and then talk about their answers. We talk about what we love, what our needs are, and about the children’s problems. This process gives dads and children a common language about their relationship. The process of dads initiating a conversation with their children in which they talk about what is happening in their lives, as well as their relationship with one another — including what’s going well and what the child thinks you can do better as a dad — is powerful.
It’s not about giving up authority; it’s about bringing your child’s voice and his or her truth into the relationship. If you want to build a trusting, loving relationship, your child needs to feel comfortable and safe to speak truthfully with you.
Randy: Can you talk about what you mean by “Ritual Dad Time?”
John: One struggle for dads today is balancing the demands of work with family time. Many dads are becoming more vocal about stating that what really matters most to them is their home and their relationships. The problem is that we want to build strong, healthy connections with our kids, but we don’t necessarily know how. The demands on us to make a living are greater than ever, since as a society, we are working more than ever.
Ritual Dad Time is one of the practical ways for dads to stay connected over time with their children. Once a month, I encourage dads to spend time individually with each of their children engaged in a new activity in a different environment. For example, bring your child to a garden, or to see street musicians. Trade off choosing activities each month with your child. My daughter and I have done daddy-daughter breakfasts, gone to a bookstore and taken a hike.
The key is consistency and that the child knows he or she will have this time just with you. The important component is to have face-to-face time. That means if you go to a movie, take a walk afterwards, or sit and have a cup of hot chocolate together where you have real face-to-face interaction.
I talk to lots of students. The one thing children of all ages say they need from their parents repeatedly is time. The activity is not as important as the time spent together. Ritual Dad Time is a great way to build in that connection that can last for years.
I teach dads how to be good listeners and to not be “fix-it” listeners. Instead of trying to fix your kid, create a space in which you do something fun together. If things come up, practice being a good listener. Older kids complain to me: “Every time I bring up something with my dad, it turns into a lecture, or a teachable moment, or he tries to fix my problems; I just want him to listen.”
Pay attention to how much eye contact you have with your kids. I highly encourage dads to make eye contact with their kids for 5-10 minutes each day, and really focus on their child.
Randy: Does this work with teenagers?
John: As kids get older, you will meet more resistance. That’s absolutely appropriate. But don’t buy into the myth that you don’t matter. When your child is a teen, you matter more than ever. It will just take a little more tact, patience, and negotiating on your part to be there and be more accessible.
Some teens who do Ritual Dad Time with their dads have really gotten into it. They’ve enjoyed challenging themselves and their fathers to do something risky or to do something they’ve never done before, like fix a car or learn to juggle. Ritual Dad Time can be as simple as taking a walk. The idea is to do something different from your daily ritual.
Randy: How do you address the issue of not having enough time? Even people who want to spend quality time with their kids often don’t have enough time to do so.
John: Ritual Dad Time is only once a month. It comes down to your values and your priorities. I’m on a train 1000 miles from my kids right now, talking to you about how important it is to be involved in our children’s lives. Meanwhile, I’m missing my kids’ school conference. There is no easy answer here, but if you really look you can find the time.
Randy: What is the “Dad’s Vision Statement” that you talk about in “The Dad’s Dilemma?”
John: The Dad’s Vision Statement concerns the legacy that we want to leave as dads. I tell dads: “Twenty years from now, imagine your kids are grown up and are being interviewed for a documentary film about you. What would you hope they say to that interviewer about your relationship? What would you hope they don’t say? Based on their answers, the next questions are: “What are your priorities now? And what do you need to change?”
Randy: What would you like to hear your children say in your documentary?
John: In twenty years, I hope that my children say: “Dad really paid attention to who I was.” I don’t want them to say: “My dad had an idea of who I was and who he wanted me to be.”
Based on this realization from my Vision Statement, my priorities are to pay attention, listen, observe, and talk with my children so that I get to know who they really are and to understand their priorities.
Randy: How do you think you have you changed as a result of your Dad’s Vision Statement?
John: I am working on changing my need to impose my agenda on my daughter. For example, Stella clings to me at events like birthday parties. I want her to be more social and outgoing. But then I had to realize that while I enjoy diving into social situations immediately, Stella, who is very intuitive and observant, needs to take things at her own pace. When she is comfortable, she will engage and be as social as anyone. It was a profound moment for me to realize I needed to pay attention to who she is and not impose my agenda on her.
When I do group work, I will have dads sit in an inner circle and discuss their Vision Statement while their kids observe them from an outer circle. It’s a profound experience for everyone.
Randy: As a father, what are you most proud of?
John: I’m most proud of my children’s sense of self. I love to watch them in the world when they don’t necessarily see me. They seem to have a real sense of self-worth, of self-esteem, a sense of who they really are.
For example, my daughter’s teacher told me about a presentation Stella gave in which the kids had to study someone “dead and famous.” My daughter picked the first woman to swim the English Channel, who was also apparently, the first woman to wear a bathing suit. For her class presentation, Stella wore a little bathing suit and bathing cap. But when she started to speak, her classmates weren’t giving her their full attention. So Stella told them she was not going to continue until they quieted down.
Stella is in the first-grade. She is very self-composed. She has a real sense of who she is and what she wants, and she’s not afraid to share it. I’m proud of who my children are and who they are becoming. I want to do my best to nurture these kinds of qualities in them.
Randy: Final thoughts?
John: It takes courage and a sense of vision to try new ways of being. As dads, we have the opportunity to listen better and build a kind of connection with our children that we never knew was possible. Women have been doing it all for decades. It’s our time now as men to step up and connect.
“The Power of Miracle Thinking.” http://www.MiracleThinking.com She also edits books and helps people find agents and publishers. Visit: http://www.AuthorOneStop.com