Tapping Dad’s Potential

(Eddie Guy/for The Washington Post)

By Gregory Keer

Even though more men are choosing greater involvement with their families, miles of improvement are still needed to shrink the gap between the average mom and typical dad. Much is said about what the guys lack and should do to make things better. But what can the women involved do to help a father tap his potential?

1. Acknowledge the Changing Stereotype

If seeing more men at the park in the middle of a weekday or carrying a macho-looking diaper bag isn’t enough, statistics might help women see that today’s family man is different than that of generations past. A recent National Center for Fathering-Gallup Poll found that more than 90% of fathers are present at their kid’s births. A Pew Research survey published in 2013 found that, “When asked about their preferences between staying at home raising children and working for pay, a nearly equal share of working mothers (52%) and fathers (48%) say they wish they could be at home.” Going further, there are more men taking the primary child care duties, whether it’s because their wives are working more or because they are single dads.

Part of the reason for this is that many men want to be around more than their fathers might have been. The drive to improve things for their own kids makes them drive more carpool, get home on time for dinner, and take real vacation time that focuses on the kids.

Women can play up the trends and intentions by planning more social time with families that have involved dads. Men respond well to competition and hanging out with families that feature other guys who are breaking the old father stereotypes might encourage them to do the same.

2. Men Still Have Pressure to Fit Old Stereotypes

Despite the changes in how men view childcare commitment, they are still subject to the old expectations of being the primary breadwinner. Many guys feel inadequate if they don’t make as much money as their working women. And the media still reflects a general dominance of male CEOs, mainstream workers, and politicians.

Women can address these issues by removing the competitive factor that has arisen between spouses. Explain to your partner that you don’t care who makes more money in the house since it all ends up helping the family. More importantly, emphasize that what you and your husband are doing is modeling for your children. Your husband can be a leader in his own home by showing his kids that he doesn’t care about who makes the most money. What matters is the effort put into it. Then there’s the issue of the “other #1” – being a #1 father.

3. Help Him Get Involved Early

Momentum is huge in just about any long-term endeavor. That’s why the sooner a father gets involved in being a parent, the better the chance he will stay in the groove over the decades. Just as conception is always a two-person job (even with modern fertility methods), be sure to keep everything else related to the child a partnership. Read pregnancy books together, go shopping for nursery items together, and go to birthing class and the hospital (!) together. After birth, maintain the rhythm by having dad change diapers, read to baby, and feed baby bottles (breastfeeding moms can still have father give a bottle each day or a couple a week).

4. Get Out of Dad’s Way

Yes, a woman carries a growing baby in her womb, gives birth, and often breastfeeds the child. That doesn’t mean a man lacks the desire to nurture. Some men have a hard time finding that nurturing impulse, which is why the momentum factor is important to start before the birth.

On the flip side, there are guys who want to be VERY involved, but have spouses who keep all the fun to themselves. Lots of evidence points to baby’s needing more of Mommy than Daddy, especially early on, yet mounting statistics prove the significance of fatherly involvement in developing children. Studies show that children with fathers who care for them, especially from infancy, end up more secure in life, among other benefits.

Still, a lot of women think they know how to care for children best. They tell dads how to do everything, down to the smallest detail. If the fathers do something differently from the moms, they are reprimanded and often taken off some parenting duties. This is detrimental to the father, who needs confidence in his abilities, and the child, who just needs Daddy to round out her life experience.

The key here is to understand that different is not wrong. If a father feeds the kids something other than what a mother suggests, it can still be OK (as long as the food’s relatively nutritious). If Dad takes the children to the movies instead of reading books, that can be all right, too, because it’s still parenting time. It’s also important to recognize that fathers parent differently. Dads let kids roughhouse more and take more chances. This is different than moms but good for children’s developing understanding of the world and their limits.

One terrific way for a mom to let go a little more is to have a dad take one night or one weekend day alone with the kids. Mom can go out with friends, out of town, whatever, as long as dad must fend for himself. It’s tough for most dads (heck, it’s hard for moms too), but this will allow a man to figure out his own pattern with the kids and not rely on the crutch of a mother. Certainly, keep the cell phone line open for questions, but resist the urge to check in or else risk insulting a father’s capability.

5. Applaud His Efforts

We all need praise for what we do. It’s not that fathers need more of it – actually, they do. The fact is that, while stereotypes are changing, Mom is still the go-to parent in most families. The only way to ensure the shrinkage of the gap between mother and father involvement is for the dad to feel in control, confident, and satisfied. Tell your partner what he does well more than criticize him for where he falls flat. You can offer advice, but do it as a team, saying, “This is what we both need to work on.” The more a father gets in the regular rhythm of child care, the more natural it will be for the man to make good on his potential.

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Gender, Marriage | Leave a comment

Schooling Boys About Girls

By Gregory Keer

respectThroughout my schooling, it wasn’t English or History that stumped me. It was girls. There was my second-grade test in flirting that ended with a classmate bashing me over the head with her very fashionable purse. This was followed by years of cluelessness that led to a high-school dating career marred by an uncanny ability to misread social cues, resulting in one common response: “I just like you as a friend.”

As evidenced by my improbably long-running success with the woman who agreed to marry me, I guess I figured a few things out. But the road to my wife was full of misunderstanding and miscommunication that could have been helped by better education than that provided by my Beavis- and Butthead-like friends, the macho stereotypes on TV, or the ultra-suave characters on the big screen. I was indeed blessed with parents who taught me the value of respect toward the opposite sex, but they gave me precious few insights into the intricacies of socializing with the ladies. And even in the heightened hormone hell of high school, teachers and administrators had precious little to say about gender issues save for the basic anatomical information in Health class.

Being a parent in today’s world presents some very stark reasons why raising a boy requires a lot more focus and intentionality than the methods of previous generations. The subject of male interaction with females is one of particular concern as evidenced by ugly and aggressive actions by young men towards women on college campuses, among other places, but the fact that it happens in college means that something is missing in the education – both formal and informal — of our boys. Somewhere along the line, a percentage of our young males has opted for instinctive displays of physical dominance instead of rationalized communication in order to get what they want from women. And there is support for this physical behavior by a number of parents and other people who should know better.

While disturbing behavior by boys in college requires a worthy and in-depth discussion, one path of contemplation is about what we parents might do to instill the deepest thinking and reinforce the healthiest behavior in our guys early on. As a father of three dudes who are quite distinct from one another, I have learned as much from them as I have taught them about sex, growing into manhood, and how to treat girls in social and more intimate situations. I’ve discussed these topics with them in a variety of situations, with varying degrees of success.

Recently, my wife and I talked to our youngest son, age 11, who was part of an elementary-school guy clique that saw girls as alien creatures who had no business on the fellas’ planet. On occasion, we’d ask Ari if he ever chatted with girls, and he’d say that one was bossy or another was nice. Our goal was to make sure that he was being polite, even if females were not part of his inner circle.

Beyond his boy band, Ari has benefited from a different perspective, as he is close with a girl he’s grown up with. They were at overnight camp together this past summer and the counselors told us that other kids had been making fun of them for being boyfriend and girlfriend. So, we asked our boy about it.

“I don’t remember anyone making fun of us,” he said, with a hint of a white lie.

“How would it make you feel if someone did give you a hard time about it?” my wife asked.

“I wouldn’t care. She’s my best friend.”

For Ari, his view of girls changes with the situation, but he has made it clear that friendship is friendship, no matter the gender. Friendship, and the equality that comes with it, is the root of what we encourage Ari to continue, especially with the coming storm of adolescence. While there is nothing wrong with the instincts that many boys have about girls being different from them in various ways, problems emerge when boys see girls as something less than them — when they view girls as inferior athletes, lesser students, or more fragile than guys are. Our boys need us, as parents, to educate them about all the goals girls can kick, the math problems they can solve, and the emotional ups and downs they can endure. More than that, our boys require us to help them see that their own weaknesses can be strengthened by healthy interactions with girls rather than activities in which boys try to dominate their counterparts.

Some may think these points of education are obvious or out-of-date, given the progress our society has made in gender equality. But this is where it’s important to bring back the issue of what has been happening on college campuses and beyond. There remains a lingering, sometimes intense current of male disrespect toward females that shows up in even the most seemingly progressive places. We have seen it in the case of the Stanford swimmer who attacked an unconscious girl after a party, and the mindless coddling of that attacker in terms of his light sentence. We have seen it in the professional athletes who have injured (or worse) their spouses, then received little consequence. In one case, a baseball player who had abused his wife received an ovation after returning to the field. Absolutely, we should allow that aggressors can make amends, but what does it say to our children, particularly to our boys, when we applaud athletes while not talking with our kids about the mistakes these men made as human beings?

As parents, we must discuss the tough stuff, sparing details for our youngest children, but at least broaching the big issues of fair treatment of girls and women. We should also ask our children to help girls who are being poorly treated, as the young man did who interrupted the sexual assault by the dumpster, resulting in the swimmer’s arrest. We must tell our boys to be watchful and active if male friends act improperly, and to never be afraid to break the bro code if they know something to be wrong.

Perhaps most important is the role modeling we adults do. In our relationships with women, be they in partnerships, friendships or casual acquaintances, we have to show our boys we respect women physically, verbally, psychologically and professionally. We have to illustrate how we talk things out and resolve conflicts with adult women and encourage our daughters and friends’ daughters in pursuits that are equal those of boys.

We should also actively involve ourselves in what our schools address with our children regarding all kinds of boy-girl topics. We need to ask about the programs schools are delivering, offer any concerns we might have about the programs, and discuss the topics with our children before and after they learn about them.

Among the other resources we can use are older children, be they our own kids or those of close friends. Ari is fortunate to have two older brothers, one who is starting high school and one who is beginning college. Both boys have been on the receiving end of parental talks about what they could do better and what they did right in their interactions with girls. They have also experienced a range of peers, from the most exemplary to some who have behaved questionably around the opposite sex. As a result, they have shown their little brother how to be friends with girls and how to act around girlfriends. They are the role models Ari has most closely watched, which emphasizes why we had to address issues early in our parenting career.

I am still teaching my boys about the keys to respecting the opposite sex. Frankly, I will keep talking to them about it because there are powerful forces out there that push guys to react to their basest instincts. Good guys can make mistakes, but with emotional honesty, lots of talking and ample role modeling, we can help our sons be the honorable counterparts to all the great daughters out there. That’s education with more value than any diploma can provide.

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Boys to Men, Columns by Family Man, Education, Family Communication, Friendship, Gender, Morals, Protecting Children, School, Teens, Tweens, Values | Leave a comment

Michael Gurian’s New Book Embraces Adult Development

Author/marriage and family therapist/researcher Michael Gurian has written a number of books with the word “wonder” in the title. This is partly because he has an endless curiosity about the complexities of human beings and living in the modern world. In particular, he, along with his colleagues at the Gurian Institute, has reached into the intricacies of science as it relates to gender and produced such bestselling books as The Wonder of Boys, The Wonder of Girls, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, and Leadership and the Sexes. These guides have helped countless parents and educators understand children and help them navigate growing up.

With his newest book, The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After FiftyMichael Gurian trains his considerable research and analytical skills on people who have already grown up, yet continue to develop in ways often over-looked by society. Especially because we are fortunate enough to be able to live longer, Gurian’s book takes on greater significance as he addresses such topics as community building, stress reduction, illness, sexual intimacy, and death. What makes the author so effective, here, is his constructive, positive approach and down-to-earth tone on the topic of aging. This is the kind of book worth reading for anyone, even before hitting 50, who wants to better comprehend his/her own changing life in order to live it with less fear and more fullness.

Posted in Adulthood, Aging, Blog, Books, Gender, Health, Perspective | Leave a comment

What Dads Need to Know: Roughhousing Benefits

By Heather Shumaker

My neighbor is a stay-at-home dad. When he heard I had written a parenting book – one that included chapter titles like “Ban Chairs – Not Tag” and “Bombs, Guns, and Bad Guys Allowed,” he perked right up. “I was always being told I was “bad” as a boy because I needed to move my body,” he said.

Movement, action and rough physical play are an essential part of early childhood, for boys and girls alike. Instead of banning high energy, find ways to welcome it.

Here’s an excerpt from the book It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and
Compassionate Kids
(Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012. Reprinted with permission). The book contains a whole section called “Running Room” which explores action, power and movement. This chapter celebrates roughhousing.

Renegade Rule 17 – Only punch your friends

Dan punches Leo, and Leo punches right back.

Nearby, an adult looks on, but doesn’t interrupt. These two four-year-olds are having fun. Dan and Leo are both wearing pint-sized boxing gloves, purple and red, and standing barefoot on a tumbling mat. They are giggling and having a marvelous time.

Renegade Reason – Roughhousing—even play boxing—is social and healthy. But it has no place if someone’s angry.

When I told a fellow mother that I was writing a book which included boxing at preschool, she was shocked. “Boxing? You’ve got to be kidding me. I spend my time trying to keep their hands OFF each other!”

That can be a problem. Young kids are physical creatures. They like body contact and have a deep need for touch. Especially since verbal skills are still developing, one of the ways children show interest in a friend is through physical contact, sometimes hugs, sometimes play fights.

Lee and Janet, the founders of my childhood preschool noticed this. They watched kids play and saw how much young kids liked to wrestle. Children would roll around together like little lions or puppies. They thought: if kids want to play that way there must be a reason. Well, why not? Lee and Janet equipped rooms with wrestling mats and boxing gloves. Rough-housing games blossomed into a 40-year tradition at the School for Young Children.

Rough-housing games, like boxing and wrestling, give kids outlets for high energy and boost friendships. But only when everyone is having fun. If someone’s angry, it’s not a game. Rough-housing is not a way to settle a conflict. Games should be between willing partners who are in a playful mood.

What’s more, it turns out that boisterous play like preschool boxing is not only a legitimate way to have fun, it also plays a positive, important role in child development.

Renegade Blessings

Rough-and-tumble play helps our kids grow on many levels. A child can learn:

–       I’m strong and powerful.

–       It feels good to use my body actively.

–       I can make friends and take on new challenges.

–       I can set limits on other people and stop something I don’t like.

–       I can listen to my friends and know when to stop.

–       I can cope, even if I get hurt a little bit.

–       If someone gets hurt, we can make new rules so it doesn’t happen again.

Why it works

Whether it’s called rough-and-tumble play, boisterous play, horse play, puppy play, or rough-housing, this kind of play is a vital part of childhood. Rowdy puppy play helps bodies and brains develop. When two kids tussle on the floor, or roll around together, they are showing the need to wrestle. If we say ‘no’ to rough play, we are thwarting this need. Instead of issuing a ban (Get your hands off of him!  Quit hitting your brother. I don’t want to see any bodies touching.) think how you can best meet this age-old need.

Horse play may look like out-of-control goofing off, but it serves a deeper purpose. Studies by Dr. Jaak Panksepp show that rough-and-tumble play helps to develop the brain’s frontal lobe including the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that commands Executive Function, controls impulses and regulates behavior. The more the prefrontal cortex is developed, the better kids do in all areas of life, whether it’s social, emotional, or academic. On-going research by Dr. Adele Diamond and others suggests that Executive Function is the top predictor of kids’ success.

Roughhousing Benefits

–       Friendship

–       Energy outlet

–       Chance to experience power

–       Impulse control

–       Risk-taking

–       Building brain power

–       Body and spatial awareness

–       Need for motion

–       Need for physical touch

–       Practice setting limits on peers

–       Negotiating skills

–       Building trust with peers

–       Self-esteem

–       Reading emotions

–       Showing empathy

–       Joy

Since this part of the brain is so important, is it really any surprise that kids develop it by doing simply what kids do best? Rolling about the floor and tussling with squawks of high excitement. Rough-and-tumble play must be welcomed.

As early educator Dan Hodgins puts it: “It’s just as important to rough house with kids as to read them a story.”

More on welcoming rough-and-tumble play into your family or classroom in It’s OK Not to Share, including:

–       staging a wrestling match

–       getting hurt

–       setting kid-based rules

–       winners and losers

–       power actions

–       welcoming movement

–       benefits of risk

Heather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012). She’s a journalist, blogger, speaker and mother of two young children, whose work has appeared in Huffington Post, New York Post, Parenting, Pregnancy and Organic Gardening. She’s a frequent guest on radio and TV shows about writing and parenting, and blogs at Starlighting Mama. You can learn more about Heather’s book at www.heathershumaker.com.

Posted in Child Development, Featured Moms & Dads, Gender, Siblings, What Dads Need to Know | Leave a comment

New Michael Gurian Book on Helping Boys

As the father of three boys and a longtime educator of high school students, I see the challenges boys face in growing up amidst changing ideas about male identity. This is not to say that girls have it easier, certainly not, but there is clearly a need to approach the uniqueness of gender as kids grow up, which is something often lacking in the worlds of education and even psychology.

This is why I highly recommend the books of Michael Gurian, who has become one of the foremost gender experts as a result of decades of work as a family therapist, researcher, and educator. Gurian has written such tomes as The Wonder of Boys , Boys and Girls Learn Differently, and The Wonder of Girls, and has now released How Do I Help Him? A Practitioners Guide to Working With Boys. This book is not just for mental health professionals, though, as it offers assistance for parents who are seeking help for their sons, fathers who need help, and couples looking for marital or relationship counseling that includes men. Gurian’s writing goes beyond the usual pop-culture obviousness and offers real insights for those who want to help raise healthier boys and make the lives of men better in general.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Books, Child Development, Gender | Leave a comment

My Three Sons

By Gregory Keer

After my third son popped out, my wife smiled through her pain and said, “I’m surrounded by penises!”

Indeed, baby Ari joins what is now four-fifths of a boys basketball team, including Jacob (3 years old), Benjamin (6), and me. While we are more than the parts that make us guys, Wendy endures the actions and comments that shout out the differences between her and us.

 A couple of years ago, Benjamin made a colorful drawing, then startled family members by asking, “Do you want to see a picture of my penis?” Judging by his innocent face, we chalked it off as natural pride and chose not to draw more attention to it by laughing — in front of him.

A few weeks ago, Jacob sang an unfamiliar lyric to a previously squeaky-clean song, “If you’re happy and you know it, hold your peee-nis.” Because Jacob has a less naive personality, we suggested saving the anatomical references for the bathroom. Hearing this, both our sons went to the bathroom and promptly shouted the word “penis about a hundred times.

All of this only strengthens the reality that Wendy is outnumbered. In the weeks following Ari’s arrival, Wendy has bemoaned what the future holds: years of kids forgetting to put the toilet seat up and peeing all over the floor (mostly due to morning grogginess), a lifetime of male competitiveness (including rough-housing that will result in various injuries), and scores of violence-oriented toys (whether they start that way or are transformed into such).

A little girl would have shored up my wife’s side of the gender battle. Wendy would have someone to shop with, play dress-up with, and roll her eyes at the boys with. Yet, as outmanned as Wendy is, she also revels in being the mother hen among the roosters. She knows that she’ll always have us to look out for her and do the stereotypical male things, such as lifting heavy objects and taking out the trash.

Wendy also sees that, for all our testosterone tendencies, her boys have a sensitive side. I take some credit for this because of my habit of crying during romantic movies, willingness to let my wife do the home fix-it jobs, and penchant for interior design. With my warmth-expressive qualities and Wendy’s own insistence on teaching communication and feelings, we help our sons go beyond traditional male boundaries.

For instance, Jacob, who is the most rough-and-tumble of the bunch, has an obsession with hair. He strokes the long tresses of every woman he can, be they babysitters or Mommy. While this may get him into trouble one day (I can just picture him coming on to a girl in a college bar, asking, “Let me touch your hair,” before the girl’s boyfriend shows up), it highlights his inclination to show affection, something less usual for the male half of our species. Jacob even strokes Ari’s wispy hair to comfort him and, when I’m tired, pets my head while singing me a lullaby.

Jacob also has an interest in understanding what a woman goes through. He recently asked Wendy, “I want milk in my boobies, too.” Now that’s empathy.

Equally fascinated with the breastfeeding experience, I jealousy look on…No, wait, what I meant to say is that the other day, Benjamin watched Ari snuggled close to Wendy and said to the baby, “You have a great mommy.”

Benjamin frequently goes beyond verbal nurturing as he enjoys holding Ari in the rocking chair and using baby talk with him. At just six, Benjamin even knows how to change positions — from cradling to upright against the shoulder — to ease Ari’s fussiness.

As a father, I recognize how much I do incorrectly, some of which is typically male. I sometimes sit on my butt to watch a ballgame while my wife cooks and I often disappear from nighttime kid meltdowns to my porcelain throne. My boys will probably learn some of these traits from me and will certainly pick up more from their friends. But I also pride myself in helping to teach them to bridge the gender gap, to be in touch with their feelings, to connect with the wonder of babies, to listen to what girls think and respond to them the way they want to be responded to.

In this way, I hope my sons will grow to understand women more and know how much better life is when they look for ways to share rather than isolate. It may be that, by the time my boys become fathers, they will bear the babies and breastfeed the infants themselves. Bad Arnold Schwarzenegger movies notwithstanding (remember Junior?), I feel confident that my three sons will make the women in their lives as happy as they now make their mommy.

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