Dr. Ascher invited Dr. Robert Garfield and Dr. Stephanie Heck to join him in writing this piece.
As clinicians and family therapists, we spend a great deal of time working with men on issues of fatherhood. This work often incorporates themes of communication, commitment, identity, intimacy, and trust. The men we work with come to us because they have difficulties in their personal lives relating to the people they love most. For example, they yearn for their children to be happy and successful, yet they may lack the skills and ability to model this type of joy and pride to their children.
The problem is that many men continue to operate under the rules of Male Code (1), a rigid set of social guidelines, both spoken and unspoken, that equate masculinity with stoicism, silence, and strength. These “rules of the road” have been in place in the U.S. for nearly 200 years (2). While traditional male behaviors have ensured that men acquire positions of privilege, prestige, and power, they can be detrimental to men’s health and relationships, particularly in parenting their children. Poor attention to their own physical health and lack of emotional engagement in their marriages have resulted in shortened life spans and increases in their partners initiating divorce (3,4).
Since the late 1990s, a growing body of research has demonstrated that fathers have a significant impact on their children’s development (5, 6). As a result, men are now being called upon to spend more time and participate in the direct care of their kids (7). They often find themselves emotionally overwhelmed by the need to balance work, relationship, and family demands. In our national survey, we found that men with higher emotional intimacy (EI) skills did better in their relationships with their children (8). We believe that men’s mental health is critically important as they become fathers, not only for their own well-being and enjoyment of parenthood, but also for the lifelong well-being of their children. A father’s emotional state, after all, has a direct influence on his children (9).
1. Be Emotionally Available and Vulnerable
Fathers have traditionally defined their roles as providers and protectors. As a dad, it’s good to get involved from the start in day-to-day parenting activities. That’s how you get to know your kids from the ground floor up. Interacting in close quarters, however, brings up surprisingly intense feelings, both positive and negative. Dads need support from their partners and friends to stay open and to respond to the emotional demands of parenting. This allows children to feel that they are connected and can open up with their fathers.
2. Listen and Empathize
Men often feel that their role should be to provide advice and wisdom. This is great when they actually have some to provide, but good parenting often requires listening without having an answer. Current developmental psychology research emphasizes the link between “empathic attunement” and children’s mental health. Empathic attunement, or empathy, is a communication skill that that involves stepping into the perspective of another in order to imagine what they feel. It is a kind of emotional “tuning in” to another person, that can be validated by checking in to see if your guess is right. This is a great trait to develop with your kids, and with others, and you can start even before your kids learn to speak. Too often fathers confuse listening with passivity, and fail to make the strong connections with their kids that empathy allows.
3. Be Curious and Open to Feedback
One way to know if you are on the right track to being empathically attuned to your child is to ask. Openness to feedback about your understanding of and impact on another person is essential to forming strong bonds. Children, especially young children, are your best mirror; they will show or tell you without hesitation if you are in sync with them. To this end, curbing your defensiveness and expanding your openness will go a long way toward building a great father-child relationship.
4. Show Physical Affection
Society has presented fathers with confusing advice about showing physical affection, particularly with their sons, because of the mistaken notion that this encourages weakness of character. There’s more evidence to the contrary, however. Psychologist and historian Lloyd DeMause points out that boys’ problems with aggression and lack of impulse control is more connected to the lack of tender nurturance, physical touch, and verbal cooing they receive as infants rather than testosterone levels, which are relatively equal in boys and girls during early childhood years (10). Consequently, boys don’t learn to self-soothe as well as girls do. Dads, it’s okay to hug and kiss your boys and girls as much as you want, for as long as you want — as long as they enjoy it.
5. Learn to Let Go
If you’ve done your job well as a parent, eventually your kids will be able to leave home and live on their own. This doesn’t happen all at once, and many kids, even after high school, have periods of returning to live at home while they work on becoming independent. Because control is such an important aspect of the Male Code, many fathers have trouble letting go and trusting their children, and struggle with the emotions of loss that accompany this transition. You can have a continued mentoring role with your adult kids as they go through this period of separation, as a caring father who respectfully checks in and is interested in sharing his feelings and finding out about his children’s lives. Believe it or not, your children appreciate this kind of “post-graduate” relationship. It opens the door for your having a mature friendship with them over time.
6. Honor Your Partner
Remember that fathering is generally done in partnership. Women have carried the load of parenting, physically and emotionally, for generations, and haven’t gotten the respect they deserve for the hard work they’ve done. As you develop your identity as a first-rate father, remember to honor your partner in this process, female or male. In doing so, honor the role that feminism and gender equality continue to play in allowing you to become this kind of dad. Your children will absorb this and appreciate the attitude of respect and carry it with them as they develop into healthy adults.
7. Know Yourself
One way to improve all aspects of your life as a father and partner is to get to know yourself. Don’t shy away from entering psychotherapy if you are struggling in any of the areas we've listed. We routinely see men’s relationships, emotional lives, parenting abilities, and success at balancing life and work improve as a result of the self-exploration process. As you become more comfortable with who you are, as you face yourself with openness, honesty, and acceptance, you will build stronger bonds than you ever imagined, and will lead a more fulfilling life. Knowing yourself often takes courage, but the benefits are boundless.
Robert Garfield, M.D. is the author of Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship (New York: Gotham, 2015). Garfield is a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Stephanie Heck, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Philadelphia. In addition to her skills as a general practitioner, she has expertise in helping new and experienced parents manage issues related to modern parenthood. Learn more at drheck.net.
1. Garfield, R. (2015). Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship. New York: Gotham, May. Ch
2. Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York. pp 42-64
3. Woolston, C. Health Benefits of Friendship. HealthDay, March 11, 2014, a review of medical research on friendship and heart health.
4. Vicki Larson, “Why Women Walk Out More Than Men,” Huffington Post, May 25, 2011. Larson cites a report from the National Marriage Project, University of Virginia.
5. Phares, V. (1999). " Poppa" psychology: The role of fathers in children's mental well-being. Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.
6. Melvin Konner, “The Link Between Detached Dads and Risk-Taking Girls,” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2017.
7. Parker, K., & Wang, W. (2013). Modern parenthood: Roles of moms and dads converge as they balance work and family. Pew Research Center.
8. Robert Heasley, Robert Garfield et al. The Male Friendship and Emotional Intimacy MFEI Survey: An Initial Report, in Robert Garfield, Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship, New York: Gotham, May, 2015 , p.272
9. Coccia, F. (2016). Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression in Fathers. BJPsych bulletin, 40(3), 167.
10. DeMause, L. (2009). The Origins of War in Child Abuse. The Institute for Psychohistory.