Children's Voice May/June 2007

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The Down to Earth Dad

The Legacy of Dads

By Patrick Mitchell

Years ago, I used to cringe internally when well-meaning child- and family-serving program staffs, whom I coached on making their programs more father-friendly, recommended "anger management" and "behavior control" classes for men as a means of turning them into better dads.

The theory, pervasive among program staffs but varying in its degree of tenacity here and there, holds that most men are people who are prone to bad behaviors, but that with help, they might be able to overcome their tendency toward those behaviors and turn into great fathers. If men could just become more nurturing and less impulsive, the theory goes, all would be fine.

I cringed back then, but I don't anymore, because I understand more clearly now that the world one sees, or believes one is seeing, comes with a paradigm not easily shifted. I am not a front-line child- and family-service professional, so I see the world through a different filter. I learned to ask probing questions and to listen intently to the replies, and the result was a compelling group dialog.

My audiences by and large came around to the notion that most dads don't need counseling or behavior modification classes and are, in fact, good people with lots of good things to offer their children. For my part, I came to accept the idea that, at some point in their lives, men in general and dads in particular need to identify the better angels of their nature and feed those angels well, while learning to remove undesirable traits from their lives as a precursor to becoming effective fathers.

Author and domestic violence expert Stephen Stosny sheds some light on the topic by suggesting, from his perspective at least, there appears to be some basis for the notion that men need to master "emotional regulation," and that if they have a good home life growing up--with a positive male role model--this self-regulation happens almost automatically.

"Most domestic violence happens to men and women who grew up without a father modeling healthy relationship behavior," he says. "The biggest problem with fathers is their own emotional regulation." Stosny has written many books and articles on the topic of compassion in relationships, and he's made several guest appearances on Oprah. He grew up in a violent home as a child.

Dads who have learned to successfully modulate their behaviors, he infers, seem to inoculate their male children, at least, from becoming adults who lack behavior control. "Fathers need to regulate their own frustration tolerance," he says. "Children learn how men should behave in relationships by watching their fathers."

Those who work closest with children and families probably sit at a vantage point that's better than mine. I'm not there to meet, greet, and get to know the men connected to the children in their programs. But one thing is certain: No anger management or behavior modification class is ever going to take the place of having a caring, involved father around when you're growing up.

So perhaps there is something we can all agree on: For the male children in our programs, many of whom are destined to become dads one day, our job is to see they get the male involvement they need right now, so they have the benefit of leveraging that involvement as a springboard to effective fatherhood later on.

Perhaps the reality that all children--boys and girls alike--need good men in their lives, and the question, "How are we going to make that happen?" will take center stage in our collective future discussions as we strive to get good men involved today, so that our impression of fathers improves from generation to generation.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! Project™ for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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