The fatherhood effect

When I was younger, at the beginning of the relationship with my first wife, I had the occasion to babysit for a family member and was accompanied by my partner. The child a girl about 5 at the time seemed to be edgy and clingy after her parents had left. I decided it might be comforting for her to sit and draw pictures. She quietly insisted on our presence and participation. Clearly she wasn’t comfortable alone and was looking for attention.

We continued to draw and I decided to attempt an experiment with her that focused on archetypal symbols. I asked her to draw a house, a tree, a river, the sun and a snake. Some may know what the symbols represent. If you don’t, no big deal. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s say symbols and characters can often represent people or things, our relationship to them and how we may be feeling about them.

The process I use is to simply note the detail of each symbol and ask questions. If you’re clever you can use this exercise to introduce positive reasoning skills to address feelings of discomfort. For example if the tree represented the father and it has many branches and no leaves, it may represent a father that is unavailable and often busy. Questions help. Is it autumn? Wow that tree has to work really hard to get enough water out of the ground to make leaves for shade. I’m sure the reader gets the point.

I’d like to note if you’re not comfortable with communicating this way, don’t. Not everyone is comfortable with abstract conversation and it’s easy to misinterpret what is being communicated. My personal opinion is this can help with talking to kids, primarily because they provide the subject matter with their art. My rule of thumb is to never allow my reaction or response to be equal to or stronger than theirs. If it is you may be coercing them to confuse their own feelings with yours. It’s disrespectful to treat a child this way. All I can say is – don’t. I take a passive role, ask questions, suggest abstract alternatives to abstract statements and listen. They know what they mean. I don’t.

In the experiment I was conducting, the most unusual detail was the snake was drawn in the river and the river was drawn with waves. I wondered about this and asked questions.

“I see waves in your river; is the water rushing by?”

“Yes, the water is very fast, the baby snake can’t swim very well.”

“Oh that’s a baby snake swimming?”

All at once she jumped into my arms sobbing and said. “The mommy and daddy snake are swimming to fast and the baby snake can’t keep up, the baby is going to get lost.”

Needless to say, I got the drift, held her tight and let her cry. Once she finished, I asked if she felt better. She said she did and I said that I thought the baby snake was a pretty good swimmer and knew when to ask for help. I realized the isolation she felt and gave it some thought. I concluded that she was unable to find a way or did not know how to express what she was feeling and may not have even understood her own feelings of isolation. I have carried that experience with me for years, always with an eye to test the insight and try to change it.

Years later my older son was telling me how much he enjoyed his time with his nieces and nephews. “I have no doubt they love you bud, you are their Uncle Hero!”

“I miss them,” he said. “I wish I had more time to spend with them.”

“You do,” I said. “Try using the phone.”

“Right,” he said. “Just what would we talk about? They would rather play and wrestle.”

“You are one dumb shit, Bud. Remember the girl you were telling me about? Call your niece and tell her.”

“Yeah, right, like a nine year old would understand,” he responded.

“Look dipshit, maybe you should consider showing your niece some respect and talking to her in a language she can understand.  Hi Angie, do you have a minute to talk, I’m calling to get some advice and see what you think. There’s a girl I met, she’s pretty and nice, but she won’t talk to me, what should I do? If you don’t trust kids enough to be honest and open with them, why the fuck would they ever trust you? Keep it simple and they will, too. Zach, think about it.”

Kids spend their whole childhood being directed, told what to do, where to do it and when to do it. The moment a child displays kindness they are providing evidence of their thoughtfulness, but we don’t ask them for their thoughts, we tell them what to think. Unfortunately we regiment them out of their humanity, train them to follow our definition of responsible and even as adults we are not responsible.

How can it be that a responsible adult can choose who they are accountable to and what they are accountable for? We confuse entitlement for responsibility and praise ourselves for it. Responsibility is an obligation; an availability; an act of listening, taking account.  The only time we listen to our children is when we need evidence to correct and control them.

You should be very careful when talking to kids. They are easily coerced, intimidated and controlled. If you do that you will miss their message and they will just give you what you force out of them.

To start the conversation why wouldn’t you call your 6 year old nephew to discuss gaming, or the new bike you want to buy? Do you really believe he has no opinion? How do they learn to think, to agree or disagree if you don’t talk to them. Where do they get self-respect if you and I don’t show them what it is? How will a child understand the concept of honesty if it is only solicited on demand and never freely exchanged?

They don’t need to be right and they particularly don’t need to be wrong. They do need to be valued. Your honesty and willingness to exchange allows them to conceptualize and express. In that process they learn how to respect a meaningful dialogue. If you say to a child, I feel sad, the people at work are not very nice to me and I don’t know what to do, it becomes an open door to problem solve and a process they can use as a template to serve themselves in similar conditions. They will learn to ask questions pertinent to the problem and develop those skills. Or we can teach them to pathologize their feelings and medicate.

If Brian says he thinks you should get a bike that’s green, then you fucking get a bike that’s green. Thank him for his advice and know that green is the color of your respect and love for him. If you don’t allow kids to negotiate a partnership in life, where do they fit? How can they know it’s their world if they have no say?

You’re their Hero for fuck sake, not their authoritarian, or a cop to police them. If we don’t hold kids in higher esteem and show respect, who will they turn to when things get tuff for them? How do they turn adversity around if the simplest resource, conversation is not part of their strategy?

Discipline today for kids is about conforming, following a very narrow definition of acceptance. Zach, do you remember when you were 8 and your mother caught you playing with matches in your bed?

Yeah, but do we have to talk about that? Hey what happened when I found out? Actually you took me out to the back field and we burned shit. I particularly liked when we filled that hole with gasoline and lit it.

The point is Zach, you got to explore your curiosity, I got to teach you about fire and what it can do and we all got to live safer. Discipline isn’t about conforming it’s about thinking and learning.

I have always believed that children are self-taught and spend most of their time learning, whether it’s a toddler moving from shelf to shelf, or running up and down stairs. If you replace the word play with the word learn, then whatever a kid is doing becomes immediately interesting. Their method of learning and the object of their learning makes them interesting. Once you have interest you have conversation and communication. Too often kids become decorations in our life, they are the decoration of our ability to control our lives, the evidence of our conformity. Sit still, behave, listen, don’t touch that, I said no, stop fidgeting, put that away.

Children are terribly isolated from a very common human experience. The playfulness of conversation that we exchange between adults can be had with children if you can respect their boundaries. We have a physical bond by proximity and affection but we offer them no freedom to express their thoughtfulness. We regiment their performance but we exclude their experience and their freedom to express it. We love them, but only enough to maintain our sense of control and safety, enough for them to conform to our fears.

We all wish for our children to be safe but we only give them a narrow bandwidth to communicate. How could they possibly learn to identify a predator if they are unable to discern deception?  How could they possibly say no when we constantly require and coerce them to obey?  We teach them to be afraid, but we don’t give them skills to overcome their fears.

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