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Julia Steiny: EVERY Kid Wants a Dad In His or Her Life

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Happy Fathers Day.

Let me thank and honor you guys for whatever you do for your kids. Hopefully you’re bringing home some bacon, doing your bit with the housework, and collaborating with your church, club, or community to organize opportunities for kids. Oh, and you’re holding the line on the handful of house rules you’ve all agreed to, and you’re always backing Mom up when she needs it.

Okay, so that’s an ideal dad. But what’s wrong with ideals? Ideals pull us forward, make us better than we are.

Absolutely any and all involvement with your kids is much appreciated, however modest. Your kids totally need you. Whatever you can give them helps them feel you are There for them. The essence of anyone’s good life is the feeling that people are there for you. And frankly, the reliable presence of caring adults is the foundation of a healthy childhood.

But discussing and establishing ideals has fallen out of fashion. It might make someone feel bad. Often most of us don’t live up to our ambitious ideals. We all want “A”s and resent feeling badly about the “B”s. Still, the human tendency to fall short doesn’t reduce the importance and power of articulating ideals.

How can we make choices in the moment if we don’t know where we’re headed, ideally?

Twice I’ve seen Dr. Susan Dickstein stand up at a public presentation, and with impressive urgency ask: “What does it look like when we have it right?” The question haunted me since I first heard it maybe 10 years ago.

Dickstein is a psychologist, the Director of Research at Bradley Hospital and a professor at Brown University’s medical school.

She understands why researchers and child-serving professionals tend to focus on the negative. People with troubled kids wants answers, fixes, now.

But what does it look like when we’ve got it RIGHT? What is the end goal of all this fixing? It’s not so obvious.

On the second, more recent occasion, Dickstein presented a great dad.

Of all places, Dickstein managed to find her example in the movie CRASH. I hated that movie, because it was about people being horrible to one another.

But buried in the movie’s images of rage and resentment was a very sweet scene. After a rough day, a tired dad checks in on his little daughter. Her bed is empty. She’s cowering under it.

In a rough neighborhood where they had been living before, a bullet went through her bedroom window and scared the dad into moving the family to a better neighborhood. She’s still thinking about that bullet. She has good reason to be terrified. But rather than talk her out of her feelings, he gets a pillow and settles in to talk, lying on the floor. Does she want to move again? No, she likes the house. Is the bullet still looking for her? No, that’s a silly idea. As she calms, he can be more playful.

He invents a ridiculous story about a fairy giving him an invisible protective cape that he was supposed to give to his daughter when she was five. He berates himself for forgetting, but she reassures him that she’s okay with it. Now is not too late. She doesn’t buy his story for a minute, but that’s no reason not to play along. His efforts to reassure her are charming.

Trust me, I’m not a crier, but I teared up. It wasn’t schmaltzy. But I was loving the quality of caring attention he used to follow her emotional lead. In the end, he was so credibly there for her, she could ease into a trusting peace that brings sleep.

Could a mom or someone else have done that? Oh, probably, but that’s not the point. He was a real good dad. That little girl was learning something terrific about what to expect from future men in her life. She knows men can be reassuring, and maybe also funny, creative, strong, but more than anything, THERE. A presence she can count on. When she’s older, she’ll know something about finding a good man to be her partner, instead of looking for love in all the wrong places.

There’s a million ways to be a great dad. But the media tends to show us crummy ones, so men, dads, moms, and everyone need far more ideas about the array of behaviors that would qualify as ideal or close enough. No one needs a big rash of judgment – you’re “bad” – when they don’t live up to high social standards. But it’s no favor to the kids to spare ourselves that ego prick when we make a “B” or less effort. The kids need to see us shooting for those “A”s, always. They need to trust that we’re trying on their behalf.

Our growing tolerance for diversity in families is undeniably a good thing. But tolerance can not mean devaluing moms and dads. Every kid needs a mom and a dad, or close facsimiles thereof. There are exceptions, of course, but generally, every effort needs to be made to help dads stay connected with their kids.

Dads matter. Don’t kid yourself. There’s a dad in every kid’s head and heart. Their yearning for their parents is a build-in feature of human-mammalian attachment. When there’s a high-functioning dad in every kid’s life, that’s when we’ll know we’ve got it right.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected]


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