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Dad's Daze: New Father-Kid Dynamics?

June 14, 2007
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A lot has changed through the years about the father-child relationship. Remember those old TV shows where Dad would call Junior into the study for a man-to-man-talk?

"It was usually because the kid was in trouble," says Russ Chandler of Portsmouth, Va. "Back when I was a kid, that's the way it was. My father and I had what I'd call a good relationship, but we never really talked about anything of major significance, not really."

Things have changed for this generation of dads, according to Chandler, who now has three teenage sons of his own: "I know my boys pretty well. I definitely know them better than I was known as a boy."

Do you wish you knew your son or daughter better? You're going to have to listen, advises Dr. Jim Longhurst, a psychologist with national children and family-services charity Starr Commonwealth. And it starts with listening to yourself.

"Many times, we as parents rely so much on lecturing and telling our children what they should do," he says. "We assume we know what motivated them to do something, and jump right into the mode of correcting them and demanding change."

Longhurst, who works with troubled teenagers at Starr's residential treatment facilities in Michigan and Ohio, believes it's a habit we as adults must learn to break.

"Many of us had parents who only talked to us as children in this manner," he continues. "They gave us orders and criticized us, so as we become adults, we naturally assume this way of interacting with our children, especially when we think they're doing something wrong."

A better direction, says Longhurst -- and one he's seen work again and again in the lives of disenfranchised young people -- is to engage your child in true dialogue. It's not as easy as it sounds, especially for fathers who feel a need to be "the authority" in the conversation.

"We must work hard at resisting the urge to come up with a specific solution or result, and instead direct our focus on understanding how our kids think, and more importantly, feel about something," he adds.

Need some pointers?

Longhurst offers these:

· Resist the urge to change your child. By listening with the sole purpose of understanding, your child will more likely make changes on his or her own. Children don't resist change; they resist being changed.

· Expand your capacity to experience the reality of your child. Do this by increasing your "pause response" and refraining from interrupting or formulating a response before your child has completed expressing his or her thoughts and feelings.

· Ask more questions for clarification and offer reflective statements. These promote your child's self-exploration and coming up with his or her own ideas about solutions to problems.

· Your child's feelings are always valid. There are no right or wrong emotions.

· Slow down your experience of time. Relax and enjoy the opportunity of sitting back and learning from your child. Don't be in any hurry.

· Remember that a shared understanding between you and your child can be very powerful. When you have made it possible to listen and learn together with your child, you have given your child a most valuable gift.

Also offering a perspective on the topic is Karen Irvin, Ph.D., program chair for marriage and family therapy at Argosy University and a licensed marriage and family therapist and psychologist.

"Fathers are taking a more direct role than ever in raising their children," she says. "Dads are more aware from infancy, even from pregnancy, of their child's development, and are more interested and involved than ever."

An Earlier Attachment

In the past, fathers relied more on their children's verbal skills to communicate with them. They now appear more interested in forming attachments earlier in their children's development: "Dads are no longer limited to teaching 'manly skills' such as survival, hunting, fishing and sports."

Like it or not, explains Irvin, this is partly due to the beginning of a major culture shift driven by necessity. "With moms less available, dad is making up the difference," she says.

More often than not, the "traditional" mother no longer exists, as she is employed either part-time or full-time.

"The idea of a stay-at-home mom with a working dad is no longer the norm," Irvin says, on a break from her teaching responsibilities and clinical practice.

Fathers are more directly involved in day-to-day child care, in communication with day-care providers and schools, and with health-care providers. They are more likely to attend doctor and dental appointments than in the past.

"Fathers previously relied on mom to attend to these details and give dad the updates," says Irvin.

Fathers' direct involvement in the details of their children's lives contributes to a greater feeling of closeness and empathy for the kids, which increases the intimacy of father-child relationships.

However, adds Irvin, "we are primarily seeing this as a middle-class phenomenon right now."

In the upper socio-economic level, there are still mothers who are able to stay at home with the fathers working long hours elsewhere. In the lower socio-economic levels, moms are still carrying the majority of the child-rearing responsibilities -- in some instances with minimal involvement from the father.

The range of subjects that fathers and their children are discussing and experiencing together is also much broader today. Dads are teaching their children values, feelings and other things that were typically "assigned" to moms.

What's driving this? Through Irvin's more than 30 years of clinical practice, she has seen more and more couples facing the challenges of divorce, and the impact this has on a father's relationship with his kids can be significant.

"Divorce has been a wake-up call for dads. When parents live together, they are accustomed to having access to their children day and night, weekend and weekday. Following separation or divorce, there is heightened awareness of missing the children and missing out on routines, such as bedtime rituals," she explains.

"Fathers seem to be clearer about the need for time and intimacy with their children, and they are presenting those needs to mothers, mediators and the courts."

Today, dads seem to be taking more time to learn how to be parents. "You used to have dads that got together and talked about sports or cars, and now they're also talking about day care and nutrition," states Irvin.

Some fathers also attend classes with their young children, and modify their work schedules to be more flexible to accommodate little ones' needs and schedules.

On the positive side of all of this, having a better relationship between dad and child means that kids are going to feel more grounded. Recent literature on children of divorce indicates that one of the variables for children's emotional recovery, social-skill development and academic success is related to a consistent, stable relationship and time spent with fathers.

This article was prepared in cooperation with ARA Content.

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