Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
I walk by a grammar school on my way to work. The first day tends to be a big deal, moms parading to the school with kids in tow, cameras flashing to capture the moment. I noticed the first day this year was a bit more celebratory than years past, no doubt a result of missing the annual milestone due to the pandemic in 2020.
I also noted the presence of dads, far more than I had ever seen before. They were on the fringes of the crowd, a bit unsure of their role in the event, awkwardly talking to each other. But there they were, trying to be a part of the first-day celebrations.
I’m noticing the men in my therapy practice also trying to awkwardly fit into their children’s lives more than they have before. One client, a father of four kids ranging in age from 16 to 6, has been the “heavy” in the family, enforcer of the household rules. Otherwise, he has spent the majority of his time working at his demanding, labor-intensive job. Parenting has been almost exclusively the domain of his wife.
The pandemic changed that dynamic quickly. Working from home was a revelation to him, and he quickly became aware of all that had been missing for him in terms of being an active part of family life, playing and connecting with his kids. He wants to find ways to engage with his children, which he is finding rather difficult.
Many men I’m working with have expressed a similar wish to be more involved in parenting and family life, but they are unsure how to accomplish these goals.
Shifting parenting roles for fathers
It’s a big change for dads to be more active in family life, and requires some adjustments in thinking. Many children of the male clients I see are not used to their fathers in a “fun dad” role at all. Parenting roles have shifted over the past 30 years or so, with women participating far more in the workforce over that time, yet the majority of parenting is still done by mothers, even those working full- or part-time outside the home. This work includes listening, playing together and helping with homework. Fathers don’t share the roles and tasks of parenting equally, but they also still miss out on the joy of being with their kids frequently.
Some dads also feel a degree of insecurity and, as one dad admitted to me recently, shame around being a more involved dad. Brought up to be a breadwinner rather than an active parent, he feels his involvement suggests a lack of masculinity. He knows objectively this is ridiculous, but without a role model in his own father, it’s a bias he carries, nonetheless.
The importance of the role of an active father is not frivolous, according to research. Dads teach their children important life skills through the father-child relationship itself, as well as their advice around peer relationships, a 2013 study found. Kids of both genders benefit enormously from engaged dads in other ways as well. Seeing men play different, flexible roles helps both boys and girls to think about their own lives with less rigidity and more optimism. Dads are crucial role models for sons, and their positive regard benefits the self-worth of daughters every bit as much. Yet the idea of an active father remains somewhat novel, despite slow shifts in gendered parenting roles.
Given these challenges, here are some steps fathers can take to get more involved.
Announce the change
There is nothing wrong with letting your kids know you want to be more involved in their lives and get to know them better. If you are a dad who is interested in being more connected, announce that intention to your family. Let your partner know you want their support in fostering connection with your children. This will also make the change far less confusing for the kids.
Shift your priorities
Of course, parenting actively involves a profound shift in the way you choose to spend your time. Many fathers who have spent the majority of their time on work and other activities have spent more time with family from the quarantine through the pandemic. With no commute time, many men I work with realize they can be more efficient with work, and consolidate it into fewer hours per day on some days. They therefore find they enjoy the luxury of more available time. Without clear intent, however, many men find time can be swallowed up by extending work or household tasks, or even scrolling through social media on their smartphone. Instead, protect time, preferably on a calendar, to spend with your kids every day.
Start with small gestures. One father I work with experienced a deep disconnection with his teenage daughter. He began to text her quick “I love you’s” and they began a pattern of texting each other frequently during the day: in-jokes, music or simply “ILY.” The connection grew gradually from there. Remember, establishing and strengthening connection takes time. Showing frustration with your kids will only serve to create more distance between you, not less.
Take cues from Mom
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In many families, Mom has a far more extensive practice effect at parenting than Dad. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, talk with your partner about how she connects. Do your kids respond to humor? Then bring the funny. Do they benefit from structure and clarity? Get involved in planning the week, including meals, homework times and winding down, before bedtime. If you continue to feel disconnected, follow the patterns of Mom’s connection with the kids.
One 17-year-old girl I see for therapy has a daily “selfie process” that can take an hour or more.