Read an Excerpt
The Modern Dad's Dilemma
How to Stay Connected with Your Kids in a Rapidly Changing World
By John Badalament
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 John Badalament
All rights reserved.
Create Your Own Vision
"Imagine that twenty years from now your child is being interviewed for a documentary film about your life. Now imagine that the filmmaker asks your child to describe his or her relationship with you," I said to the five dads sitting in front of me in a circle. "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 eight-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 — let alone admitting it to his son — 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.
Your Dad's Vision Statement
In the story above, each of the five dads, Jeremy in particular, 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. Part of the Red Cross's mission is "to provide relief to victims of disaster." The purpose is helping those in great need, the focus is on victims of disaster, and the inherent values are, among many, compassion and care. We can see from Jeremy's story above 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.
Creating a Dad's Vision Statement will help you clarify your sense of purpose as a dad and guide you in important decisions. As the saying goes, "If you stand for nothing, you fall for anything." Without a vision, it's easy to get into the habit of being passive, of letting your circumstances or comfort level determine your course of action. As a new dad, I had ample opportunity to slide into the role of passive dad from the very start. I discovered, for example, that the world-class hospital where our daughter would be born offered exactly zero classes or groups geared toward dads. In the maternity ward, many of the important instructions about our baby were directed at my wife. By the time we returned home, the disparity in how competent I felt as a caregiver and how competent my wife, Katie, felt was large and growing. It was then that my vision of being an involved, capable, and nurturing dad began to crystallize. Only weeks later, that vision guided me in making a decision that, ultimately, would have profound implications: instead of going with what seemed like a default arrangement, in which I would go back to work full-time and Katie would stay home with Stella, we decided to split the childcare and each work part-time. Both of us would get equal time in and out of our comfort zones. Katie stepped out of her comfort zone each morning that she had to leave for work, watching me pack the diaper bag. And I stepped out of mine when, instead of heading off to work, I prepared my daughter for an outing to the park.
With a vision to guide one's decisions and actions as a dad, it's also easier to become more proactive and less reactive. This is especially true when children enter adolescence. Last spring I met a dad, Ron, whose stepson, Warren, was in his last year of elementary school. In his Dad's Vision Statement Ron wrote about his commitment to open, honest communication with Warren, despite claiming not to understand the world of teenagers today. Ron was contemplating his concerns over his stepson moving to a much larger middle school in a matter of months, and his vision statement helped clarify a key priority: "I will make sure to talk with Warren about the big issues — drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, sex, and dating — by the end of this school year." Without the awareness and focus of his vision statement, Ron said, he may have thought about talking with him, but more than likely he would have convinced himself it was unnecessary or, at best, he would have reminded Warren's mother to talk with him. Instead of being reactive and waiting to have his first discussion about alcohol with Warren the morning after he'd come home drunk, by using his vision statement, Ron was able to take a more preventive, proactive approach.
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 five-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 farfetched story, while possible, had actually blinded me to seeing, let alone respecting, Stella for "being herself."
From that one sentence in my Dad's 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.
Having a vision for the relationship I want to build with my daughter was helpful in two ways. First, it served as a reminder that when a conflict persists, it's useful to step back and reflect on my motivations. So often when we butt heads or get into power struggles with our children, we forget to ask ourselves simple questions like, "Why am I taking this particular position?" or "Why does this issue continue to bother me so much?" Second, once I was able to see the forest for the trees, my vision statement made it abundantly clear what I needed to do — which, in this case, was to let go of trying to "make" my daughter into someone she's not.
The following story illustrates one modern dad's process of creating and using the Dad's Vision Statement in his everyday life. The kind of relationship Chris envisions with his daughter — trusting, open, supportive, caring — is shared by many dads who have done this activity. What I found so unique and important about his story, however, is his thoughtful, practical, and realistic approach to realizing his vision.
I met Chris three years ago after giving a talk to a room full of dads at his daughter's school in South Carolina. After just a few minutes of listening to Chris tell me about his relationship with his daughter, Hayden, I remember, I thought to myself, "This guy would be great to interview for the book," which at the time was in its formative stages. He posed a question: How do I come home from a job that essentially requires me to disconnect from my emotions and then try to be emotionally present for my daughter? The very nature of his question, as well as the discussion that followed, left me with a strong impression that Chris was not only interesting — he enjoys sewing with his daughter — but insightful, engaged, and actively trying to learn new and different ways of fathering.
While I left our conversation wanting to know more about his story, I had no doubt that Chris was a dad with a clear vision of the kind of relationship he wanted with his daughter. My hunch was confirmed when I returned to interview Chris for this book. The passage below captures how Chris's experiences with his own dad have helped shaped his vision to this day.
The Origins of a Dad's Vision Statement
CHRIS: My dad grew up in what was then a Polish neighborhood of Boston, Chelsea. His home life was very structured, and there were expected roles children were supposed to play. He told me a story once about Sundays in Chelsea — Sunday was visiting time. You go to church, and then you walk through the neighborhood, where all the relatives live, and do visits all afternoon. My dad, who was an only child, was expected to be seen and not heard. The adults had adult conversation, and he was usually not included in any of their activities. He determined that when he had children, he wasn't going to be like his dad. My wife's dad was the same way. So both men have made a really big effort to change with their own children. I think that plays a large part in the way my wife and I are raising our daughter.
When I was a kid, if my dad went to work on a Saturday or we weren't in school, we had the option to go with him. We used to love walking through the machine shop and seeing all the guys working on lathes, and we loved walking through the blueprint room. And then there was the diner. I remember when the guys would change shifts and we'd hear them chatting; they'd be using dirty language, and we just loved it. The guys talked to us and let us hang out. We never heard anything like, "You kids don't belong here."
Every vision is in some way rooted in history. In Chris's case, the major source of inspiration for his Dad's Vision Statement, on the next page, was clearly drawn from some positive aspects of his own father's legacy. Interestingly, Chris's dad, like many men today, seems to have been influenced by some of the more negative characteristics of his parents.
Your Kids Are Not Just Accessories
CHRIS: The other day at the fire station, I watched Hayden play basketball with some of the guys. They lowered the hoop for her and everything. I thought to myself, Isn't it great that they can include a child like that? My wife and I have surrounded ourselves with people who are willing to do that. For the most part, if we go somewhere, we want to be able to bring our daughter and include her. She's not an accessory that we take somewhere and plop down and say, Okay, stay here, and when we're done, we'll get you. It's not that way. We include Hayden in every area of our life.
I also think that playing with my daughter, in her world, helps to build trust and keep our relationship strong. It can be too easy to get caught up in paying bills and worrying about how much oil costs and to lose our sense of imagination and playfulness. We can forget how much fun it is to build a fort, do a puzzle, or splash in a pool. When it rains — Hayden doesn't like thunderstorms — we build a little tent with cushions and sheets to hide under. Being human enough to still play opens you up so your child can see you as someone to relate to — not their best friend, but someone who understands them and their world. I think it fosters openness and builds trust.
EXERCISE 1. Dad's Vision Statement: CHRIS GARNIEWICZ
To create a Dad's Vision Statement, I asked Chris to imagine his daughter, Hayden, being interviewed for a documentary film about his life twenty years from now. Chris envisioned the filmmaker asking Hayden to describe her relationship with him. Then he responded to these four questions:
Twenty years from now, I hope Hayden says:
My dad is trustworthy and loving.
I can talk openly and honestly with him,
and he listens to my point of view.
Twenty years from now, I hope Hayden does not say:
Dad wasn't honest with me.
He didn't walk his talk.
He didn't care what I had to say.
Today, my priorities are:
I work hard at keeping my word and leading by my actions.
We include Hayden in every area of our lives
and spend tons of time with her.
We give her opportunities to try new things and to take risks,
encourage her to have a strong voice,
and help her make more decisions for herself.
What I need to change:
I need to come home from work in the morning and be less
grouchy, more patient, and more emotionally available.
I also need to be a better listener and to overall make a constant
effort to maintain trust and keep the dialogue open with Hayden.
We're also trying to raise our daughter to be independent and a good decision maker. What she chooses, she needs to run with, but we're not forcing her into anything. When it's something she has to do — like brushing her teeth or eating breakfast — we try to give her options and let her know the consequences of each, so she can decide for herself.
It can be as simple as letting her know she has to take a bath before bed. I would say, "You can do it before or after dinner. If you get it out of the way before dinner, you'll have more time after to read or play with your dolls. But if you do it later, that will cut into your playtime after dinner." And then the choice is hers. It's not necessarily an arguable option — she's still going to eat dinner and have a bath — but it's an option.
I think we've generated a really good open, trusting relationship. Hayden's not afraid to tell us what she likes or doesn't like. She has a voice. Hopefully, down the road this will lead to a much more open relationship with her as a teenager so that when issues arise, she'll feel that she can come to us with a problem, letting us know if she needs counseling, guidance, or a different perspective.
Excerpted from The Modern Dad's Dilemma by John Badalament. Copyright © 2010 John Badalament. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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