A big change in dads

Parents have realised that children struggle with their 'big feelings'.

Parenthood – especially for fathers – used to be all about ‘control’.

But a new generation is learning it is really about connection, writes Steve Biddulph.

Social media is a great gift, for someone like me who lives on an island and is also quite shy. And now I have stopped my life of touring and doing shows for parents around the world, it can be a warm-hearted connection to folks who read my books. These mums and dads are enthusiasts for parenthood and family who think love matters more than fashion, say, or material possessions or ‘success’.

I’ve avoided Instagram or Twitter, but manage two Facebook communities, one for parents of boys, and one for girls – and they are full of life and heart, they really keep me going. I dip into Facebook cautiously, aware it can be like a bush track which you can easily slip off and go careening down through prickly scrub to a rocky landing!

Often my Facebook feed sends me posts from a rather heart-rending page called Dadventure, where mostly American fathers seek help and emotional support from each other as they struggle with the many challenges of kids’ health, behaviour, as well as marriage strife, and making a living while still being a good dad.

It’s such a window into the world of dads, both heart rending and inspiring in about equal amounts. And there is something very striking that you can’t miss, a kind of watershed moment happening in fatherhood. The old giving way to the new.

Whenever someone posts a question about kids’ misbehaviour, the old guard are there weighing in with things like ‘kids have to know who is the boss’ and ‘my old man taught us respect with his belt, and it worked for me’. I used to work with those dads when I was a family therapist, as they gradually admitted that, well, in fact they hated their dads for most of their childhoods and were noticing that their kids were starting to hate them too. There is a whole skip bin full of denial inside a great many men, and they are almost buried under it, but one day they do get out.

But most heartening is the number of commenters who have made a very big fundamental shift to realise that parenthood is not about control. It’s not about dominating kids into behaving well by yelling, threatening, hitting or contriving punishments – at least, not as the first line of defence. It’s been one of the greatest leaps forwards in parenthood that we have realised that children struggle with their ‘big feelings’ and our job is to help them find a way through the frustrations, negotiations, and griefs and fears which every childhood brings, so they can give space to their emotions but express them in words, and not in actions that might hurt those around them or themselves.

Plenty of adults in our generation knew no other way to express their grief or fear than to punch a hole in the gyprock, or walk out and get drunk, or be abusive or horrible to a partner just trying to help. Plenty of readers will have partners who still struggle to be vulnerable and communicate, instead of merely reacting. So we have to urgently help our kids learn these skills.

When our four-year-old or six-year-old goes into a meltdown or misbehaves terribly it takes incredible grace to not just lose it, or yell at them or go all cold and rejecting, but instead to calm ourselves, really connect with them and reassure them that we love them, and we want to help. But I see this all the time now in parks and shopping malls, and the homes of young friends and family. A child struggling – and a mum, or dad, crouching down, or sitting with them and talking it through. If they will allow it, holding them close. And seeing that child’s feelings subside, and happiness be restored.

It doesn’t mean mollycoddling kids or giving them everything they want, or letting them call the shots. It’s still okay to say, “I am getting cold and bored now, and I want to go home” when they’ve been almost an hour at a freezing playground! Your feelings count too. But being a parent who is committed to teaching their kids – at the peak of their misbehaviour – that we can all find a way through our feelings, is worth more than gold. Who wouldn’t love to have a parent like that?

Visit Steve on Facebook at Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys, and Steve Biddulph’s Raising Girls communities. Steve’s books including Raising Boys, The New Manhood, and Fully Human – are in over a million Australian homes.