Being a dad in the 21st century

It is a fabulous time to be a father historically, anthropologically and emotionally. The restrictive and limiting social norms around the roles of mothers and fathers have softened, and we are witnessing a wonderful, passionate engagement of fathers to their children.

Parenting has become more of a team effort, where both mums and dads work together to create the best outcomes for their own family.

Many dads are fathering non-biological children and there are many grandfathers who are also being father figures — you are all dads in my eyes.

Dads started turning up to my seminars in much larger numbers around five years ago and there have been times where a group of mates turn up to a seminar with the women at home looking after the children. Dads want to be good dads, not lousy dads, just the same as mums want to be good mums.

I have chatted to many dads over the years especially at my ‘Dads’ Only’ seminars and I have been moved by the depth of concern that dads have when their female partners and their children struggle.

This uncomfortable feeling of powerlessness can make them feel that they are letting their families down and that they should be doing better. Men are biologically wired to be the protectors and defenders of their loved ones and to fail to do this often cuts quite deeply. Many men find this difficult to express and articulate and often go quiet or withdraw.

Just a note before we go further to say this article is directed at dads who are living with the mum of their children… although many of the strategies will be just as relevant for dads who are amicably separated and for step-dads. I know this does not represent all family situations, and I apologise but word length just doesn’t allow me to tackle those situations in the context of this article.

A dad way and a mum way…

Being a parenting team can have moments of challenge too. Women can be complex creatures with a tendency to overthink, over worry and over-stress in ways that can confuse men.

Most women have a clear preference for how they want things done in their homes and often don’t take kindly to suggestions to do things differently. It is important in the early stages of setting up your parenting team to accept that sometimes there is a dad way and mum way of doing things and that is okay.

Does it really matter if the long-sleeved onesie top is buttoned up under the leggings or over the top? Or if the colours do not match? Or if you have used your son’s T Shirt on your daughter? Relax – team parent –because these really are small things.

What really matters is consistent, warm, loving care by the parent team – that means creating patterns and habits of predictability especially around mealtime and more importantly bedtimes, especially with babies and toddlers.

This is incredibly important for the parent team because it builds predictability and lowers stress, and both mums and dads need to be mindful to follow similar strategies in order to gain as much sleep as possible.

A dad chatted to me one day about how the transition to becoming a full-time dad of a nine-month-old baby was possibly one of the hardest things he had ever done because of the unpredictable nature of the task.

He asked his wife to write down in detail the way she managed the whole day with their baby from the time he woke until the time he went to sleep at night – and for the first few weeks he followed that plan to the letter.

We know that many men have a strong tendency to be single focused and so sometimes they may be distracted and forget that it is almost sleep time or that they haven’t fed the child a snack for three hours. The reason they may have forgotten is because they have been so focused on being present and playing with the child.

Having a plan can really help a dad get used to becoming well attuned to his child and to be able to read the signs from the child that will help him meet the child’s unique needs.

I prefer to have a day plan when I am taking care of my grandchildren too but I am ‘part bloke’! Practice of course always improves performance.

My top five tips for dads of toddlers

  1. Accept that there will be times that being at home with a toddler can be incredibly exhausting and frustrating and that is normal and that is when they are healthy and not cutting a new tooth. Mums struggle too.
  2. Toddlers are wired to pull things apart, tip things upside down, smear food and anything greasy and sticky. This is a sign that they are exploring the world using all of their senses and it is important to see this is developmentally important rather than a sign that your toddler is being bad or naughty. Check out my Toddler genius strategy.
  3. Try not to take your toddler’s challenging moments personally. If they refuse to eat the food you have lovingly cooked, or they smashed down the tower that you have built out of Duplo, or they refuse to have their afternoon sleep – this is not a sign that you have failed as a father. This is a toddler practising an important biological need to claim independence.
  4. Toddler meltdowns and tantrums are also biologically driven and not a sign that you’re a lousy dad. Many dads tell me how difficult they find managing these moments when they are home alone. One of the reasons for that is that many dads were deeply shamed as little boy toddlers for having such moments of challenge. Breathe, stay calm, avoid speaking while they are in the midst of the tantrum, as they can’t hear you, and keep them safe from hurting themselves while the cortisol – the stress hormone – is being discharged from their bodies. Keep your arms open and welcoming and, once the tantrum has finished, reassure them they are safe. Always keep in mind these are developmentally normal, not a sign you have a bad or naughty child or that you are failing in some way.
  5. Validate – if you can – the big ugly feeling that your toddler may have been struggling with. So often it is frustration that something didn’t go the way they wanted it. Many of these moments are triggered by quite funny things like you used the wrong coloured cup, or you cut their sandwich in squares and they wanted triangles, or maybe the family dog looked at them the wrong way. This interesting stage will pass. I have lots more suggestions in this blog, Twelve top tips for those in toddler land.

Fathering in the primary years

Fathering our children as they move through primary school is possibly the easiest of the three stages – baby to toddlerhood, school age and then adolescence. This is a great time to really consolidate deep relationships with your children by consciously creating memories that matter.

Having unique dad dates (mum dates matter too) is a hugely important habit to create before puberty starts.

A dad once shared with me his story about his relationship with his daughter. When she was very young he used to take her on long trips in his truck and immersed her in hours and hours of AC/DC music.

As she grew older they continued to love singing along to AC/DC and when he told me this story, he had just recently returned from an AC/DC concert in Sydney with his daughter. What a fabulous story of strong bondedness formed around music.

Developing a strong, warm relationship with your daughter is equally as important as hanging out with your son – who, let’s be honest, you probably find much easier to understand much of the time.

Daughters and sons

Dr Bruce Robinson in his wonderful book, Daughters and Their Dads, writes about the importance of this connection. He argues that if she has a strong connection with a dad, a girl will menstruate later, become sexually active later, be more confident, self-assured and assertive, and will manage mixed gender environments much more effectively. Be sure you don’t disappear when your daughter moves into puberty and try your best to support her – especially when you are struggling to understand some of her behaviours.

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Puberty seems to be starting earlier and earlier for both boys and girls. Dads can find this really confusing especially due to the uncertainty of moods and emotions. As our world shifts in its understanding of gender it can be really confusing to ensure that you are not supporting the old code of being a boy or a girl.

Steve Biddulph writes passionately about the importance of allowing our boys to feel the vulnerable emotions of life rather than suppressing and hiding them as was the earlier expectation of the 20th century. This can be difficult for a dad who was punished or sanctioned for crying or for feeling sad. Being mindful not to thoughtlessly say things like ‘don’t be a sissy’ or ‘be a man’ when that was something you heard a lot of as a boy can be difficult.

Shaming was very common for boys in the 20th century and often when men get frustrated or feel under pressure they can default to the same parenting style they had when they were a boy.

It is equally important to encourage your daughter’s resilience and capacity rather than give her the perception that she will need a man to protect her.

Helping your daughter participate in the same risky play as your son is important and helpful on so many levels. Over praising your daughter because she is ‘beautiful’ and ‘a princess’ can also be problematic long-term in our sexualised world.

An early childhood educator told me the story of a book day at her centre when two girls turned up dressed as princesses. Apparently one of the little five-year-olds punched the other princess because her daddy said she was the only princess in the world! Yikes! The good news is that Disney has finally recognised the need for girls to be the heroine and yes you will need to watch Frozen and Moana with your daughter many, many times.

If you had the tough dad who was emotionally distant, punished a lot and used shaming then you need to accept that you are going to have to search for ways to be the dad you wanted when you were a little boy.

Good advice

One of the positives of the social media revolution has been the connection of fathers to other fathers and also the ability to source solutions to challenging parenting concerns while sitting on the couch if need be.

Here are some things that may help. There are some fabulous articles written by men in the Manhood Project, Fatherly.com, the Fathering Project and the Good Men Project website.  If the mother of your child/ren sometimes finds an article or podcast or the like and tags you or links it to you – PLEASE take the time to check it out. She will have seen something in it that she wants you both to remember – no she is not sending it as a form of criticism, or a sign that you are lacking but rather as a way to help you both be even better parents.

Perhaps you would also enjoy some light-hearted inspiration and information from people such as the Kiwi ‘How to Dad’. Another interesting guy on social media who shares some realities about being a modern dad is DaDMuM.

Some great books to explore are Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys in the 21st Century, The Making of Men by Dr Arne Rubinstein and any of Michael Gurian’s wonderful work. The Australian “Man Up” series is another excellent documentary to watch.

My ‘Maggie Moment’ YouTube clips have also become a favourite with many dads because they’re only short and usually tackle just one thing at a time. You might also like Parent TV for the same reason (it’s like Netflix for parents).

I know that there are good dads who, after being to one of my ‘Boys, Boys, Boys’ seminars, said they found it so helpful they brought their brother and mates to the next one. Be proactive in helping other dads make better choices because ultimately everyone will win as we will have happy children, happier families and happier homes.

The bumpy ride to adulthood

The third stage of childhood is the transition from being a child to an adult and this can be a really challenging time for us and our kids. Things can start changing from around 10 years of age and by 12 to 14 you will really know you are in the thick of it. Many parents feel like an alien comes in and steals their beautiful child!

We need to keep in mind that this is an incredibly confusing and stressful time for our kids because they are going through physical changes, hormonal changes, brain changes, cognitive changes and emotional changes all at the same time and so they will be experiencing higher levels of angst and fear.

Parents need to be the safe base during this challenging time and try to avoid adding more stress into their lives. My best suggestion for all parents of preteens is to become well-informed about what is going to happen so that you can also explain it to your kids. I recommend watching my adolescent seminar in your home with your preteen or teen so that they can hear in detail what is going on, what can happen and why parents still matter.

My top tips for dads who have teens

  1. Lighten up – make it your mission to help your kids laugh, cringe and roll their eyes at your ridiculous antics because it will defuse some of the tension in your house. Helping mum to laugh will also be really beneficial during these years. Do fun stuff with them – whatever is their interest help that happen whether it be taking them surfing, swimming, fishing, to dance or to their part-time job. Welcome and care for their friends too. Help them do what makes them feel better – it really makes a difference.
  2. Be kind and generous – offer to pick your kids up and their friends and randomly take them for ice creams or hot chips just to cheer them up. Ask if they need your help and do this often without words. Silent hugs or gestures of encouragement and support are really appreciated by our troubled teens.
  3. Show affection and support to their stressed mum during these years because she will be seriously stressing every waking moment she has. Let your kids see what a loving, mature relationship looks like – go on dates, have big hugs in front of your kids and make each other laugh.
  4. Do your best not to pressure your kids about school because they are already getting tons of that from others. Around exam time always remember it will be a bit like walking on egg shells and that is okay because you are one of the safe adults in the house. Indeed, spend time building other life skills and even ‘upskilling’ your kids pre-adolescence – that will help them later in life. They need to know passing exams is a tiny part of living a healthy, worthwhile life.
  5. Show your kids that you can love them unconditionally – even when your daughter gets an eyebrow ring, your son is sporting a Mohawk, a lousy report, or a temper tantrum over something minor – reassure them that nothing will ever stop you loving them, even if you don’t like their behaviour in the moment. Reassure them that no matter what poor choice they make you will always be there even if it is that they have damaged your car, or been suspended from school, or been caught DUI – you will still be there. If you find it hard to say these things, write them notes in their lunch box, on bathroom mirrors or buy them cards that say it for you.

Being a good dad isn’t for the faint-hearted. However, the rewards of learning, growing and making better choices around your kids are so worth it.

I was blessed with an awesome dad who gave me all these things and so much more. I still miss him every day of my life and sometimes feel I can hear him laughing with me when I do something ridiculous. My dad is in my heart always. May you find that place inside your child’s heart too. Be the dad you yearned for when you were a boy.