|Building with stones at the river|
Beren and I are sitting at a table at the Crayola Factory, making stuff with modeling clay. At a table near us, a young boy is crying. I don’t recall knowing why. He looks sincerely upset.
His parents are next to him. Dad, up on his seat, has a head like a worn pencil eraser — a football type with a developing potbelly. Mom is beside Dad. Dad starts counting from three down. “If you don’t stop crying, we’re leaving!
“3… 2… 1…”
The kid sucks it all in and stops crying. His emotions have been successfully suppressed.
Is this fathering? It makes my blood boil to see it.
As fathers, we often have little support, context, or skill. Our image of parenting frequently comes from our own parents, either in conformity or reaction to their style.
To be a good father nurtures the child, but it also nurtures the adult. Like all deep relationships, the boundaries we police between our self and others open. The opportunity for transformation is there.
We need good fathering, not just because we need to save children from being emotionally stunted future adults, but because we need men (fathers) to develop emotionally as well too. Oh boy do we need that.
Here are my thoughts on fathering, without caveats or disclaimers.
1. Trust your child
My son Beren is five. He uses saws, knives, hammers, shovels, clamps, scissors, clippers, and loppers. Why? Because I trust Beren and have given him each tool to use, as soon as he was physically capable of wielding it. In this way, my son has authority over his own safety. If he makes mistakes, he will learn from them. Rather than endangering him, this has nurtured a sense of carefulness and responsibility in him. I’d be afraid to hand a saw to a child whose parents have always told them “be careful, don’t touch that!”.
2. Lead without rules
I see three types of parenting out there:
–The authoritariansets rules and then bullies the child into adhering to them through yelling, punishment, and physical intimidation. Though they may believe themselves to “firm” or “strict”, they are in constant conflict with their child.
Comment: If the child is bound by rules, they will not be able to directly experience the moral foundations of those rules. They’ll do things because “that’s the rules”, not because their experience and heart guides them. When rules break down (they will) the child will not be able to judge complex situations and act in an ethical way.
–The nag is always telling their child “You need to share…”, “Say please”, “OK, I’m going to count to ten and then it’s time to go”. They are insecure and unwilling to exercise direct authority, and they’re also obsessed with what other adults are thinking at all times, hence the admonitions to share and use courteous language whether or not the child is old enough to developmentally prepared to understand.
Comment: If the child is nagged into sharing, saying hello, saying please, they will do so in a rote manner and not because of empathy or an emotional connection with others. Also, nagging is subject to being ignored — and rightfully so. Grow a sack, and save your authority for when it’s really needed instead of spilling it out willy-nilly.
–The space case is staring at their gadget or thinking about their stocks or doing whatever but is fundamentally unable to parent.
Comment: Why did you have children?
So, what roles can a father take other than those caricatured above? One of a father’s roles is to allow and encourage their child to have experiences while he provides backup — safety if needed, love when something goes wrong.
If there is something that could be learned from a situation gone awry, don’t ruin it by turning red in the face and acting like it’s the apocalypse. Or by nagging the situation to death. Or by withdrawing. Listen, talk it over. Deal with it. Role play using imaginary characters if need be to elucidate a story or interpret an experience.
There’s this sense that “bad” behavior comes from “bad” children. Fathers need to know that “bad” behavior is often an honest reaction to a bad situation, environment… or bad parenting. Read the symptoms and think about what the underlying cause is. Also, a lot of bad behavior can be solved with a snack, drink of water, or with good attention like sitting together and reading a book.
It’s lazy to get angry, blow up, then withdraw. I do it sometimes, but it sure doesn’t feel right.
3. Model Behavior and Knowledge
People are mimetic learners. We mirror astonishingly complex movements and behaviors. By doing, we shape our cognitive bodies in such a way that the pattern can be enacted again. Similarly, we learn “facts” through stories and puzzles, because the mind travels along the narrative or solves problems and facts are thus imbued with meaning.
Fathers need to avoid downloading facts to their children. They need to get creative about knowledge. Live it, move it, use it. Don’t teach geometry, go build a fucking shed.
4. Show love
People are animals. We have bodies. We respond to love that is expressed through closeness, hugs, and touch. Withhold these from a child and you will create two emotional robots – yourself and your child.
5. Support Mom
If Mom is really mothering, her job is harder than yours. No matter what kind of high-roller 70 hour a week wage slavery you’ve chosen. Stop patting yourself on the back for making money — an abstraction — and start supporting Mom who’s making an emotionally whole young person… or trying.
6. Trust Nature
I’ll try to keep this short.
-Breastmilk is the only appropriate food for babies and nurtures young children both physically and emotionally. Substitute engineered chemicals and your child will be less healthy, less smart, and less emotionally whole. Sorry, it’s just the cold hard truth.
-Move! 50% of our human cognition is devoted to complex movement. If a child is forced to sit all day while “learning”, 50% of their brain is not being engaged. This half of the brain is not some distinct hemisphere that can be shut off. The brain is literally understimulated by 50%.
-The natural world is much more complex than our built environments, comprised of right angle geometry, circles, and homogeneous materials. New construction is the worst – at least urban environments have filth and decay for complexity. A child’s movement and awareness will be much more complex in a natural environment. Note that the more anthropogenically degraded an outdoor environment is — the more it has been plowed, graded, mowed, and sprayed — the less complex it is and the less it will benefit your child.
Also, screens are two-dimensional and engage just one sense. Don’t let a computer or TV replace you.
7. Be funny
Humor can diffuse some of the worst snits and arguments, moving us from our stubborn positioning and landing us someplace else. Laughter literally shakes stress out of the body and scientific studies attest to its healing value and contribution to longevity.
Being funny is not about corny dad jokes. Being funny is about indulging in the absurd, saying shit you’re not supposed to say, and loosening the shackles for a moment. Jokes are funny because they go places we wouldn’t otherwise go and they turn things upside down. A useful skill and one you need to model for your child.
8. Be the defender
The civilizing project that began with agriculture’s modifications to the natural environment is reaching its apogee. We are currently upgrading from a system that modifies physical reality in fairly coarse ways to one in which the fundamentals of reality are reconfigured through genetic and chemical intervention.
If your child won’t conform to the current social norms for domesticated humans, you will be pressured to alter them chemically, soon genetically. Trust your child, not the system. If you let down your child, no one else will be there to defend them against being violated in this way.
Even if your child is not threatened with drugging or genetic alteration, people will attempt to force your child into Procrustean molds from day one. Incessant psychological pressures destroy the animal instincts, heart feeling, and unforced wisdom of our young.
We live at a time when all of the fundamentals of our human animal selves are prohibited in public. Which of these basics can you spontaneously (even if discreetly) perform in a public space: sleeping, nakedness, fire, sex, urination, foraging, hunting, digging, dancing? None, at least not without approbation and in some cases arrest. A lot of people don’t even let themselves sneeze but blast it back into their sinuses and brain out of shame.
Children are trained that every single bodily function that is native to their animal selves is circumscribed, and they begin to distrust their bodies and instincts. The shaming persists until they are finally willing to submit to existing in a sunless box under dropped ceilings and fluorescent lighting, strapped to a chair, downloading and processing data.
As a father, you have two choices. You can be the domesticator, beating all the rest to the punch by introducing shame every time your child wants to run naked and free.
Or you can be the animal father, the rooted man who feels, moves, and defies. You can be the defender, supporting the fundamental wholesomeness of our animal selves before the bastards start to grind your child down.
Let me know
What do you think? Does any of this resonate? Can we men support each other and up our skills? Do we have the courage to deal with emotions?
Be in touch.